After some early-season struggles, the Seahawks had one of the league's best run defenses over a nine-game stretch of the season, shutting down some of the game's top rushing offenses like Philadelphia, Atlanta and the Los Angeles Rams. But in back-to-back losses to Jacksonville and the Rams, the Seahawks have allowed 400 rushing yards, including big games by Leonard Fournette and Todd Gurley, the latter being a running back they kept in check in a Week 5 victory in L.A.
Plenty of factors went into the Seahawks run defense taking a step back, but perhaps none were bigger than the injuries suffered by linebackers Bobby Wagner and K.J. Wright. Wagner, who has been dealing with a hamstring injury for several weeks, had to leave the Jacksonville game early in the third quarter, then Wright went out later in the third quarter with a concussion. Wright had to sit out Sunday's loss to Los Angeles, and while Wagner did play, he was not at full speed and ended up being taken out of the game early for a second straight week.
Fortunately for Seattle, Wright has been cleared to return, while Wagner is feeling better this week than he was at this time last week.
"I'm feeling a lot better," Wagner said. "A lot better than I was last week. I know there was a lot of 'Should I play? Should I not play?' I think hindsight is, you can always say whether you did something right or wrong after the fact. I think you are dealing with this injury for, I don't know, six weeks or whatever the case may be. It felt like it did all the other weeks and last week it didn't work out the way that it had in previous weeks, so again, we live and we learn. You learn a lot. I learned a lot about my body, learned a lot about my mind and would I do the same thing over, I would because I am a fighter. I love this team. I love this game and I want to be out there. I want to be out there to help and I felt like I could, so it's not something that I would do differently. I would just make sure I adjust my alignments a little bit more, so I could make some plays."
Wagner said he felt the same in pregame workouts as he had in previous weeks, but that once the game got underway, "I just didn't feel like I had that burst to kind of make some of the plays that I was used to making."
Wagner went through Wednesday's walk-thru practice, and while he was listed as a non-participant for practice later in the day, he does expect to get some practice work in this week, which hasn't often been the case in recent weeks. Wright, meanwhile, was able to participate fully in practice having cleared the concussion protocol.
"It feels good to have those guys out there," Seahawks coach Pete Carroll said. "Those guys have been stalwarts for us for a long time and to get those guys back out there, it feels good."
Asked what playing without those two linebackers does to a defense, Carroll said, "Well, there's a couple of things that happen. One, when the really experienced guys are out there, sometimes they make up for the mistakes. There's always errors in there somewhere, and they have a sense for it and ability to know that a guy is not where he is supposed to be at times when he's hitting the blocking scheme, and they can adapt and fix it, that's part of it, but also the calls and the continuity and the communications and all of that will help us. Those guys are really, really good at it. They keep guys around them playing better just because of their experience.
"Bobby and K.J. are fantastic football players in our scheme and they know stuff so well, that they do help others. Sometimes, it's not the verbal communication; it could be a pat on the butt to move a guy, or it could be just a gesture that they can make and make somebody understand what's going on, and they're kind of hard to value, but they are there and they're very, very important."
And it's not just what Wright and Wagner bring to the table individually that helps Seattle's defense, it's also the six seasons of experience they have together.
"You have been playing with him for so long, you understand the body language," Wagner said. "I can look to my right or look to my left, wherever he is at, I can see, OK, he sees something, I probably know what he is thinking given the film we watched during the week, so I'm like 'OK, he is about to take a chance,' and there's certain things that you know versus not knowing. There was a particular play during the game where I recognized a trap, and K.J. probably would have read my body language the way I seen it, like 'Oh, he sees something. Let me figure out what it was that we watched during film,' but it's things like that. When you have been around somebody for so long and understand the way their mind thinks and the way their body kind of moves out there, it does help you play a little faster."
Having those two back on the field together this week is particularly important because the Seahawks are facing the Cowboys and running back Ezekiel Elliott, who last season was a first-team All-Pro as a rookie after rushing for 1,631 yards and 15 touchdowns. Elliott has been out the past six games serving a suspension, but is back and expected to start this week. The Seahawks know they'll have to be sharp in their run defense if they're going to avoid giving up another big performance to an opposing back.
"It's always the same themes; we have to play really disciplined, and we have to tackle really well," Carroll said. "That's the running game; it isn't about being a hard-nosed tough guy, that's not it. You have to do right and you have to do things right play after play, and the better the team is, the more they take advantage of your mistakes. You have to just be errorless, that's how you have to go about it. We made some misses in some reads and some things that could be a lot sharper, and it just leads to the easy yardage for them. Good running backs take advantage of that."
With the linebackers back to being at full strength, or at least something close to it, the Seahawks plan on playing that disciplined defense that made them so hard to run against for more than half the season.
"The first thing we want to do is stop the run and we haven't been doing that," Wagner said. "I feel that it's a mindset. It's a situation where we've been down this road before and all it takes is focus and everybody doing their job to get back on the right track. I feel like everybody is there. We just got to go out there and execute it. He is going to come out and they are going to try and hand the ball off a lot and we are looking forward to it."
Photos from Wednesday's practice at Virginia Mason Athletic Center as the Seahawks ready for their Week 16 matchup with the Dallas Cowboys at AT&T Stadium.