John McGrath: Bobby Wagner shaping into star on defense

Staff writerNovember 17, 2013 

The final score of the Seattle Seahawks’ 41-20 victory Sunday was misleading. Less than a minute into the fourth quarter, they were still slugging it out against a Minnesota Vikings team that had plenty of time to make up an 11-point Seattle lead.

And then Vikings quarterback Christian Ponder, at his own 20-yard line, lobbed a dump-off pass toward running back Adrian Peterson, hoping to find some space on a day blue jerseys swarmed him early and often.

The ball never reached Peterson, because linebacker Bobby Wagner got to it first.

Wagner had flubbed an easy interception opportunity on Minnesota’s previous possession, but this time his hands were soft and his mind was set.

Wagner returned the ball 9 yards, to the Vikings’ 18, setting up the Marshawn Lynch touchdown that left the visitors deflated and all but defeated.

Next time they had the ball, Ponder threw a pass that cornerback Walter Thurmond took back for a score. Moments later, right defensive tackle Clinton McDonald joined the fun, pulling in a Matt Cassel pass intended for Cordarrelle Patterson.

“It became a party out there,” safety Earl Thomas said of the turnover flurry. “The dam was about to break, sooner or later. And then it started flooding.”

The Vikings’ collapse began with Wagner, the middle linebacker whose all-around game — in addition to the interception, he had nine tackles, a sack and two passes defensed — was his third solid effort in three weeks.

 “I really felt like going into that fourth quarter, we were in pretty good shape,” Minnesota coach Leslie Frazier said. “We needed to get another score, but the way the defense was playing — keeping us in the game — I just thought we could it turned. The turnovers in the fourth quarter got out of whack, but up to that moment of the first turnover, we were there.”

Intuition is as essential for a middle linebacker as toughness and lateral quickness. At 6-feet and 241 pounds, Wagner never will be the most imposing athletic specimen on the field, but he seems to have a sense of where the ball is going.  

On Sunday, for instance, he didn’t stew about dropping the first pass Ponder threw to him.

“I just knew I was going to get another opportunity,” he said. “I didn’t care about the yards after the catch. I just wanted the catch.”

But his most urgent priority was containing Peterson, a much more problematic assignment than the Seahawks’ defense faced last week against the Falcons.

“We understand that last week we stopped probably the lowest-ranked offense in terms of rushing yards,” Wagner said of the Falcons. “We knew we had a good challenge coming in with AP.”

Peterson finished with 21 carries for 65 yards, with a long gain of 13. A sore knee didn’t help his cause. Neither did the fact the Seahawks’ defense looked like the one nobody could run against in September.

The defense’s return to form can be tied to Wagner’s return to full strength. He suffered a high-ankle sprain during the Hawks’ only defeat this season, Oct. 6 at Indianapolis.

Wagner sat out two games while outside linebacker K.J. Wright moved to the middle, then came back — perhaps too soon, in retrospect — against St. Louis on Oct. 28.

That a pair of rookie running backs (the Rams’ Zac Stacy and the Buccaneers’ Mike James) gouged the Hawks’ defense for back-to-back 100-yard performances was not unrelated to Wagner’s injury.

“My ankle is getting better,” Wagner said. “I feel faster and faster every week.”

At full speed, Wagner is a potential Pro Bowl player with a chance to exceed the hefty expectations placed on him after the Seahawks selected him in the second round of the 2012 draft.

“He’s a great player who wants to be a great player,” Thomas said. “I think he’s special.

People talk about Ray Lewis, I see that kind of fire in Bobby.”

Lewis, who retired last season, ranks on the short list of greatest linebackers in history.

Wagner was named Sports Illustrated’s Defensive Rookie of the Year in 2012.

Comparisons to Lewis are premature, to be sure, but where there is fire, there is fire.

Legacies can wait. Wagner rather would be known as starting middle linebacker for Seattle’s first Super Bowl championship than a second version of Ray Lewis. 

“Everything is happening at the right time,” Wagner said Sunday. “We’ve got players back, and everybody’s getting healthy. We’re starting to peak at the right time. You don’t want to have your success early and then none late. You want it at the right time.”

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