When Bobby Wagner entered the NFL in 2012, he got what almost all rookies get.
Fellow Seahawks linebacker K.J. Wright pulled the younger Wagner aside.
“When I was getting picked on by the older guys he said, ‘Just wait. You got to make a couple plays and then they’ll lay off of you,’ ” Wagner recalls.
Oh yeah, they lay off Wagner now. All the plays he and Wright make, on every down, are an NFL rarity. It’s a huge reason Seattle has led the league in scoring defense the past four seasons. It’s largely why Seattle has the No. 1-ranked defense this season.
Wagner and Wright are why the Seahawks (3-1) feel they are uniquely equipped get another “W” Sunday — against Atlanta’s soaring, scoring machine.
The Falcons (4-1) are coming to CenturyLink Field for the Seattle’s latest test of its No. 1 defense against a No. 1 offense. Atlanta’s Matt Ryan has 1,740 yards passing through five games. That’s on pace to break Peyton Manning’s NFL record of 5,477 yards passing in 2013.
“They look really, REALLY good,” Wright said of the Falcons.
“It’s definitely a challenge. It’s the No. 1 offense against the No. 1 defense. You want to see who’s best. We know that defense wins football games. And so we got to go out there and do our thing.”
Asked the last time the Seahawks faced an offense this good, Wright paused for 10 seconds.
“It’s been a minute,” he said. “I don’t think I’ve seen an offense like this. The way they can do just everything — run the ball, throw it vertically, tight end is good, got two running backs that are really good — it’s been a LONG time.
“You tell me.”
OK, how about Manning and Denver’s NFL record-breaking offense in that ’13 season, the offense Seattle dismantled in its 43-8 win in Super Bowl 48?
“No,” Wright said, scoffing. “This is much better than that offense. Trust me.”
Ryan has lifted Atlanta to the top of the NFC South with an unusually diverse passing scheme. It’s not just limited to All-Pro wide receiver Julio Jones sprinting deep in games such as two weeks ago, when he became the sixth NFL player to gain 300 yards receiving in a game. The Falcons’ second-leading receiver in yards is running back Tevin Coleman. He and fellow back Devonta Freeman run go routes, slants, crosses — far more than the traditional swing passes out of the backfield for runners.
Wagner said no other Seahawks foe uses running backs the way Atlanta does.
“They motion them out to the ‘three’ (wide receiver position), to the slot, in all different fashions. To the two-receiver side. To the three side. Empty (backfield). They put them in all different situations,” Wagner said. “You’ve just got to understand what they are trying to do within each play.”
The football public is riveted to the matchup of Seahawks three-time All-Pro cornerback Richard Sherman against Jones, who last season tied for the NFL lead with 136 catches. And that will indeed be the marquee event within this showdown of division leaders.
But the deeper key to Sunday’s game is likely to be how Wagner and Wright, the Seahawks’ linebackers that never come off the field, are able to run with and cover Atlanta’s running backs in the passing game that will be coming with the wind and rain to downtown Seattle.
Many defenses the Falcons face employ six defensive backs — “dime” packages — to help cover Atlanta’s dynamic running backs. Not Seattle. Not when Wagner, a two-time All-Pro middle linebacker, and Wright, his unheralded partner outside, are so effective against the run and the pass.
They are why Seattle rarely uses six defensive backs at one time, no matter how often and well offenses throw the ball.
“Oh, we take a lot of pride in that, not ever having to leave the field, not having to come into dime packages,” Wagner said.
“This is one of those games to show why we don’t come off the field.”
Denver was No. 1 in the league in 2015 in yards allowed and pass defense, just ahead of Seattle. Last week the Broncos tried to have their linebackers cover Coleman and Freeman. They were often left in the Atlanta tailbacks’ dust.
Coleman had a 49-yard catch down the right sideline and a 31-yard touchdown reception, part of his 132 yards receiving out of the backfield in the Falcons’ 23-16 win at Denver.
The game wasn’t that close; Atlanta led 23-6 in the fourth quarter.
The Broncos were preoccupied with limiting Jones down the field the week after his dozen catches and those 300 yards receiving burned defending NFC champion Carolina. Atlanta countered by running the ball 32 times to control field position and the game.
Wagner is supremely strong for his 6-foot, 245-pound size. Wright is freaky fast for being 6-4. They are why the Seahawks can keep their best run-stopping linebackers on the field without sacrificing pass coverage.
“Some teams like to put safeties in for linebackers or put corners in for linebackers,” Wright said. “But the coaches trust us to cover these guys, and we do a pretty good job at it.
“Linebackers are supposed to be on the field, as the quarterbacks of the defense. So we are going to be out there covering receivers, covering running backs, tackling on the run game. We do it all.
“I believe this game (against Atlanta) is a linebacker’s game. We have to do everything.”
When Wright is studying game film to prepare, he gets aghast seeing 20- and 30-numbered cornerbacks and safeties on his screen as the second line of defenses to combat running backs in passing offenses.
Wright wonders, where are the linebackers?
“You see it on film and you’re like, ‘Man, that ain’t right! That’s not right at all!’ ” he said.
“I’m real thankful that the coaches trust us to do it. We handle it pretty well.”
On offense, the Seahawks need to handle Sunday’s elements of rain and winds forecast to be up to 25 miles per hour. Russell Wilson’s sprained knee and sprained ankle are likely to keep Seattle unusually skewed away from running the ball as often as it typically does under coach Pete Carroll.
Carroll spent this past week detailing the need to get back to offensive balance; the Seahawks have passed the ball 142 times (plus nine sacks) and run it 113 so far this season. The previous four seasons under Carroll, they averaged 54 percent runs and 46 percent passes in its play distribution — and went to two Super Bowls.
But Wilson’s not likely to be back to his elusive, mobile self Sunday to venture far from the pocket — and certainly not to run the read options that have been at the core of Seattle’s rushing offense. The sprained medial collateral ligaments that Wilson suffered in his knee on Sept. 25 and what is believed to be a high-ankle sprain from Sept. 11 often take a month or more to heal.
Christine Michael is starting to show wear from being essentially Seattle’s only consistent runner — lead back Thomas Rawls is out until November with a cracked fibula. Wilson has rushed for 28 yards through one quarter of this season after gaining 553 yards on the ground last season. He’s rushed for zero first downs on scrambles off pass plays this season. Last season he scrambled for 19 first downs.
So expect Wilson to continue throwing from the pocket, even in the weather, even though Atlanta’s run defense has been vulnerable at times this season.
But what Wagner and Wright do against Atlanta’s backs and unique passing game is likely to be more decisive Sunday.
The Seahawks are 3-0 the last three times they’ve played the league’s No. 1 offense. That dates to a 24-23 win over Tom Brady’s New England Patriots in a Seattle downpour on Oct. 14, 2012.
The Seahawks’ defense has absolutely dominated the last two such meetings. In that Super Bowl pummeling of Manning and the Broncos, Denver came in averaging 457 yards and 38 points. They left with 306 yards and just eight points. This past Jan. 3, Arizona entering the 2016 regular-season finale averaging 420 yards and 32 points. The Seahawks annihilated the Cardinals in the first half before Arizona pulled its starters later for the playoffs; Arizona finished with 240 yards in Seattle’s 36-6 win.
In their last two games against the league’s top-ranked offense, the Seahawks have won by a combined 79-14.
“We just fly around. Fly around and make plays,” Wagner said of him and Wright. “That’s what we look forward to. I love playing with him.
“We just feed off each other’s energy.”
Gregg Bell: @gbellseattle
ATLANTA FALCONS (4-1) at SEATTLE SEAHAWKS (3-1)
Sunday 1:25 p.m., CenturyLink Field
TV: Ch. 13 Radio: 710-AM, 97.3-FM.
The series: The Seahawks lead the all-time series 9-6 but have lost four of the last five meetings dating to 2007. That includes the Falcons’ last-minute rally to a 30-28 win over Seattle Jan. 13, 2013, in Atlanta in the NFC divisional playoffs. The Falcons have won the last two games at CenturyLink Field, in 2010 and ’11. The Seahawks’ last home win over Atlanta came when Bryce Fisher’s sack of Michael Vick late helped preserve Seattle’s 21-18 victory. That was on Sept. 18, 2005.
Line: Seahawks by 6 1/2.
Sherman shadowing Jones: Both guys and teams were coy about it leading up to this game, but after Richard Sherman shadowed the Jets’ Brandon Marshall all over the field in Seattle’s last game, the three-time All-Pro cornerback is surely going to track Atlanta’s All-Pro receiver in this one. This will be a different kind of shadow. Instead of short routes in front of Sherman, Jones will try to run deep past him — he leads the NFL with 21.5 yards per catch and is two weeks removed from becoming the sixth player ever with a 300-yard receiving game. The entire league is going to be watching to see who wins this battle royale.
Show off Wagner, Wright: Sherman vs. Jones will get all the attention, but this is the key to the game. The Seahawks have an advantage over just about every other team that plays Atlanta: They have two linebackers, Bobby Wagner and K.J. Wright, who never come off the field. Their size and speed make Seattle far better equipped than other teams to defend Falcons running backs Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman coming out of the backfield on passing routes. Coleman is second only to the great Julio Jones in receiving yards for Atlanta’s No. 1-ranked passing offense. But when the Seahawks go to nickel defense, their ability to devote more DBs to receivers and their stud linebackers to the running backs is the decisive advantage for Seattle’s top-ranked defense against the Falcons’ No. 1 offense.
Beware of the tight end: Safety Kam Chancellor being questionable with a groin injury is a siren call to the Falcons to send Jacob Tamme (17 catches in five games) at what has been Seattle’s area of concern for two years: defending the tight end down the middle. Whether it’s a less-than-fully-healthy Chancellor or fill-in Kelcie McCray, Atlanta QB Matt Ryan is going to test him and Earl Thomas by targeting the tight end(s).
The pick: Stats and weather say Seahawks may run more. But Russell Wilson’s still not fully healthy, so he stays in the pocket for a dart-throwing contest with Ryan. Seattle’s defense is uniquely equipped to slow down Atlanta just enough. Seahawks, 28-24.
25 — Richard Sherman, CB (6-3, 195, sixth season): Sherman vs. Jones. All-Pro vs. All-Pro. Sherman usually is at his best when so challenged.
72 — Michael Bennett, DE (6-4, 274, eighth season): Defenders have not been able to put Atlanta QB Matt Ryan under duress this season. Bennett can.
88 — Jimmy Graham, TE (6-7, 265, seventh season): Is he finally, fully in Wilson’s passing plans? Maybe, but still not fully healthy from knee surgery.
11 — Julio Jones, WR (6-3, 220, sixth season): Atlanta is going to send him deep. Often. He cherishes this faceoff with Sherman.
26 — Tevin Coleman, RB (5-11, 206, second season): Atlanta’s second-leading receiver in yards will test Seattle’s linebacker far down the field.
44 — Vic Beasley, LB (6-3, 246, second season): Had 3 1/2 sacks, 2 forced fumbles last wk at Denver. But Russell Wilson is so much better, craftier than Paxton Lynch.
Gregg Bell: firstname.lastname@example.org