RENTON, Wash. — The Seattle Seahawks got three key plays from Bobby Wagner in their 27-20 win over the Atlanta Falcons this past Sunday. The All-Pro middle linebacker and defensive captain dropped Matt Schaub for a third-quarter sack, recovered a fourth-quarter fumble at the goal line and broke up a two-point attempt on Atlanta’s penultimate possession to keep Seattle’s two-score lead intact.
The two tackles he made on the Falcons’ opening drive were less significant to Sunday’s outcome but much more so to Wagner’s place in franchise history. According to the team’s count, those tackles gave him 985 for his career, breaking the club record set by safety Eugene Robinson more than two decades ago.
“He’s got plenty of years left,” Seahawks coach Pete Carroll said of the 29-year-old Wagner. “I don’t know how anybody could ever break that record. I think he’s going to own that forever. That’s amazing that he’s there already. Just a tribute to the unbelievable player that he is and his discipline, his toughness, his work ethic, everything. That’s an incredible number.”
Wagner is no longer the overshadowed star he was during the height of the Legion of Boom. He now is the best player and the face of a defense that revolves around its linebackers more than ever.
According to ESPN charting, Seattle has run a league-high 334 defensive snaps out of its base personnel, which in Carroll’s 4-3 scheme means three linebackers on the field at once. The next-closest team is Arizona at 226. That rate of 69% is more than double the percentage of base the Seahawks ran last season (31%) and significantly higher than the 40% from 2012 to 2018.
Of the Seahawks’ 334 base snaps, 166 have come against an offensive formation with at least three wide receivers, which typically calls for a fifth defensive back to replace a linebacker for coverage purposes. The next-closest team is Carolina, with 49 such snaps.
Kendricks’ interception of Schaub on Sunday illustrates why the Seahawks have gone against the grain by remaining in base, whereas the rest of the pass-happy NFL is in nickel — with a fifth defensive back — more often than not. Seattle has three linebackers who can make plays in coverage when the offense is in passing situations, like the Falcons were on Kendricks’ interception, when they went with three wideouts on first-and-20.
The idea is to keep the best players on the field, and the Seahawks believe Wright and Kendricks are better than nickelback Jamar Taylor.
“We just concentrate on us and figure out our best combination of people,” defensive coordinator Ken Norton Jr. said earlier this season. “Our best combination of people as of now is the big, strong, fast, smart guys. Really good football players really work well with us.”
Carroll’s history with Norton helped convince the head coach that the base-heavy approach could work. They did it together in 1994, when Carroll was the coordinator of a San Francisco 49ers defense that had Norton at linebacker.
“A great group of guys,” Norton recalled of that 1994 team. “Just the speed, and the football IQ, the ability to match up with receivers and work combination routes was big back then. These guys that we have now are very similar. They love ball, they do a lot of studying, they have the ability to move and to adjust on the run, and they really work well together. That allows them to play a lot and play at a high level.”
Carroll believes the approach is working even though Seattle’s defense has been underwhelming by most measures, including its 22nd ranking in Football Outsiders’ defense-adjusted value over average (DVOA). Carroll pointed to the lack of pass rush — the Seahawks have only 13 sacks through eight games — and said the truest comparison is how their base defense has fared this season in situations where they would have been in nickel in the past.
Two numbers that support that claim: Seattle’s base defense has allowed almost the same passer rating (85.5) this season against formations with at least three wide receivers as its nickel defense did in such situations over the previous two seasons (85.3), per ESPN charting. They’ve allowed 4.62 yards per carry in those situations this year, as compared to 4.82 from 2017 to 2018.
“Statistically, we’re ahead of where we’ve been,” Carroll said. “We’ve been checking it really carefully just for obvious reasons because we’re departing a little bit from the norm, so I want to make sure that we’re doing it right. There’s a lot of positives that are coming from it. What I’d like to do is just be able to hit them a little bit more, make it hard on the offense with our rushes. But the running game is really intact like we had hoped, and the numbers are comparable to where they’ve been in the past in the throwing game.”
Wright, who moved into fourth place on Seattle’s all-time tackle list on Sunday, is in his ninth season, while Kendricks and Wagner — who were drafted one pick apart in 2012 — are in their eighth. That experience is one reason why Wright believes in Seattle’s base-heavy approach.
“You have three really talented guys, guys that have played a lot of football, know how to get the job done,” Wright said. “It’s a beautiful thing just having me, Mike and Bobby out there stopping the run, just playing really good ball, can do good on the back end. So it’s working.”