Seattle Seahawks

A new role for Wagner: Blitzing dervish

The Seattle Seahawks are getting more pressure on opponents by having middle linebacker Bobby Wagner blitz more.
The Seattle Seahawks are getting more pressure on opponents by having middle linebacker Bobby Wagner blitz more. The Associated Press

Bobby Wagner is a hulking 6-foot, 245-pound man. He doesn’t easily hide anywhere.

Yet before snaps this season, before more of them Sunday night here in the desert when the Seahawks (4-1) try to put the nearly desperate Arizona Cardinals (3-3) way behind in the NFC West race, Wagner is going to walk up behind Michael Bennett. Seattle’s Pro Bowl defensive lineman is even bigger than Wagner.

And Wagner’s going to seek to vanish.

“I try to hide behind Mike B a little bit,” the key middle linebacker said, grinning.

Through five blitzing games, Wagner’s seemed darn near invisible — at least judging by how he hasn’t been blocked.

The Seahawks arrived here Saturday armed with a weapon they weren’t utilizing the last three times they played the Cardinals in Arizona. And Seattle won all those games by a combined 105-34 without it.

Now they have Wagner blitzing more — and more effectively — up the middle behind Bennett than he has in any of his previous four seasons with Seattle.

Why now and not before?

“I think it’s just us, it’s me. My play-calling,” Seahawks second-year defensive coordinator Kris Richard said. “It’s just giving the guy the chance to show what he can do.

“He’s pretty good at it. That’s really the whole idea of it. You go back at the end of the season, you do your self-scout, and you recognize the value of a guy and what he’s capable of doing. We want to make sure we place all our guys in the best positions possible in order for them to be successful. He’s been a pretty good blitzer.

“He’s proving consistently now, game after game, that he’s a very valuable blitzer for us. It’s been cool to watch.”

Unless you are a quarterback.

It’s a new, pressurized world the Seahawks are crashing onto foes so far this season. Already the NFL’s top-ranked defense for years, they are first in the league in stopping teams on third downs, with 47 stops in 67 tries (just a 30 percent opponents’ success rate). They are third in sacks per pass play (16 sacks in 183 drop backs). Beyond their 16 sacks in five games, they have hit the quarterback 38 times.

Last season, Seattle was fourth in third-down defensive efficiency and only 15th in sacks per pass play. After five games last season, the Seahawks had 10 sacks and just 26 QB hits.

The difference? Richard calling more blitzes for Wagner.

“When he calls it, we get a sack or a hit off of it. It’s been pretty productive so far,” Wagner said.

More blitzing is the most noticeable change in Richard’s two seasons as coordinator from the Seahawk defenses under predecessors Dan Quinn and Gus Bradley in the Pete Carroll regime.

Before, Seattle relied on its front four to create the pressure on quarterbacks. And that worked — like never in the league’s last 60 years. As Bennett says to anyone with ears, don’t look at the Seahawks’ sack ranking to judge how effective their pressure is on quarterbacks. Look at the points and wins.

The Seahawks have made the last four postseasons, played in two Super Bowls and won the team’s first league title with a top-ranked defense that became the first to lead the NFL in fewest points allowed for four consecutive seasons since the Cleveland Browns of the 1950s.

The defensive line’s pressure against the pass and the run is why Seattle won Super Bowl 48, crushing Denver in February 2014. Bennett became a Pro Bowl pass rusher and Cliff Avril one of the most disruptive yet underappreciated edge rushers in football in the seasons since that title. And linebackers Wagner and K.J. Wright mostly spied running backs, tight ends and receivers in seven-man, blanket coverages.

In the last two seasons Richard has moved Bennett inside as a speed rusher against slower, overmatched guards and centers. Bennett, at the age of 30, has become one of the league’s quickest and best rushers off the snap.

Now, more than ever, Wagner is coming in right behind him.

“Well, now you have to account for him,” Richard said. “It makes it difficult for them to load up, just on the guys that put their hands in the ground, down after down (defensive linemen). You’re going to have to account for some other people.”

Wagner’s seven quarterback hits in five games is already his career high for an entire regular season. He is becoming more adept by the week at timing his blitz across the line just as the offense snaps the ball. He wasn’t nearly as sharp on his timing in Seattle’s opener Sept. 11 as he was last weekend in the win over Atlanta.

“It’s just picking up on cadences, snap count,” said Wagner, who has one sack in seven career games against Arizona.

That was when he wasn’t blitzing like this, though.

Behind the blitzes, the Seahawks are again expecting to have Kelcie McCray starting at strong safety for Kam Chancellor. Chancellor, a four-time Pro Bowl safety, is doubtful with a pulled groin that had him on the sidelines last weekend. That was when cornerback Richard Sherman singled out McCray not having played much and the defense lacking Chancellor’s communication for the two blown coverages that allowed Atlanta to tie what had been a 17-3 game in the third quarter.

McCray said Friday he knows the Cardinals are likely to copy the Falcons’ pre-snap motion and crossing of receivers outside that confused the Seahawks’ secondary last weekend.

But Seattle’s defense has another job besides fixing that confusion: Stopping David Johnson.

“That’s my Job One,” Wagner said.

Johnson leads the NFL in yards from scrimmage and is tied for first with eight touchdown runs. With the big, 224-pound Johnson, the Cardinals have a much more formidable running threat than they’ve had in years. That’s going to keep Bennett, Wagner and friends from teeing off on 36-year-old quarterback Carson Palmer, who was limited in practices this past week with a strained hamstring. Palmer is on pace to throw for 1,000 fewer yards than he did in his career-best 2015, when Arizona ended Seattle’s reign in the NFC West before losing at Carolina in the conference title game.

“They are featuring him a little bit more each game, whether it’s (catching passes) out of the backfield, stuff like that,” Wagner said of Johnson, in his second year from Northern Iowa. “He’s like their engine. He gets them up and going.

“We can’t let him get on a roll.”

As Wright said: “We’ve got to stop this guy.”

The Seahawks’ defense is second in the league against the run after six weeks, and first overall.

And Seattle is 6-3 on the road in the division in the last three seasons.

The Seahawks know Arizona is the team they must put down to win back the division. And if Seattle wins for a fourth consecutive time here on Sunday, it would be three games ahead of theCardinals in the loss column approaching the midpoint of the regular season.

“They are going to be ready to roll,” Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson said. “We are excited about that.”

Gregg Bell: @gbellseattle

Seahawks gameday

SEATTLE SEAHAWKS (4-1) AT ARIZONA CARDINALS (3-3)

Sunday 5:30 p.m., University of Phoenix Stadium, Glendale, Arizona

TV: Ch. 5 Radio: 710-AM, 97.3-FM.

The series: This the 35th meeting of the NFC West rivals. Each team has won 17 times in the series. The Seahawks have won three in a row at Arizona by a combined 105-34. That includes Jan. 3, Seattle’s 36-6 victory in the 2015 regular-season finale after the Cardinals had already clinched the division title. Arizona took quarterback Carson Palmer and other starters out of the game after Seattle’s dominant first half. Arizona’s last home win was on Sept. 9, 2012. In their 20-16 victory quarterback Kevin Kolb rallied the Cardinals late in rookie Russell Wilson’s first regular-season start for the Seahawks.

Line: Cardinals by 2.

SEATTLE’S KEYS

Slow down the new Cardinal threat: Powerful running back David Johnson is the “most effective guy” the Seahawks have seen yet this season, according to Seahawks coach Pete Carroll. “He’s my Job One,” linebacker Bobby Wagner says. Johnson runs as well as catches, leading the NFL in yards from scrimmage and co-leading in touchdown runs. He gives Arizona a dimension about which Seattle hasn’t had to worry in previous years. It’s not just Carson Palmer’s deep balls anymore. But from Todd Gurley this season to Adrian Peterson twice last season and beyond, the Seahawks have dominated top runners the last few seasons. They are mad at being only No. 3 in the NFL against the run right now.

Expect copycats: As sure as coach Bruce Arians wears Kangols, the Cardinals are going to test the Seahawks’ secondary and fill-in strong safety Kelcie McCray with the same route combinations Atlanta used to burn Seattle last week: motions, crosses, high-low route concepts outside. We all spent the past week dissecting Richard Sherman’s blowup over the two blown coverages for Falcons touchdowns. The Seahawks spent it reinforcing if they do what they are taught on such routes, there will be no issue. Yet the coverage breakdowns happened at the Jets Oct. 2, in the loss at the Rams last month, against Carolina and Cincinnati, Arizona and the Rams last season … you get the picture. The Seahawks must be on point outside, not only Sunday night but against every other copycat foe that saw what the Falcons did.

Seize this unexpected chance: Everyone who expected the Cardinals to begin 1-3, raise their hands. The Seahawks didn’t either. Even after two consecutive wins, Arizona is already in near-desperate straits entering this one. Seattle can move three games ahead of its biggest division threat in the loss column approaching the season’s midway point — if they can win for the fourth straight time in the desert. This is a surprising opportunity too good to squander.

The pick: I still think Seattle and Arizona are the NFC’s most talented teams. This is a different Cardinals’ offense, with Johnson plowing and not as many big plays deep so far. It’s going to come down to corralling Johnson. And the Seahawks’ defense has manhandled prolific, powerful runners the last few seasons. Seahawks 28, Cardinals 20.

PRIME NUMBERS

SEATTLE

54 — Bobby Wagner, LB (6-0, 245, fifth season): Carson Palmer has never faced him blitzing as much as he will here. Part of a career renaissance.

33 — Kelcie McCray, SS (6-2, 202, fifth season): Says last week’s communication/coverage issues were everyone’s fault. Likely in for Chancellor again.

68 — Justin Britt, C (6-6, 315, third season): Great so far in new spot. Must correctly call AZ bringing Golden, Jones, pass rush from all angles.

ARIZONA

3 — Carson Palmer, QB (6-5, 235, 14th season): Apparently has NFL’s first dehydrated hamstring. Seahawks blitzing more than he’s used to seeing.

31 — David Johnson, RB (6-1, 224, second season): NFL’s leader in TD runs, yards from scrimmage. Teammate says runs like Walter Payton. Huge test.

44 — Markus Golden, LB (6-2, 260, second season): Four sacks off edge in a new, four-man fast rush with 3 LBs. Arizona is tied for 3rd in NFL with 19 sacks.

Gregg Bell: gbell@thenewstribune.com

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