Last time we saw Bobby Wagner, he was mostly looking up to watch the ball soar over his head.
Last week was a pass rushers and defensive backs game for the Seahawks. Pittsburgh threw 59 passes for 490 yards against them, yet lost. Nine of a game-high 12 tackles for Wagner came to end pass plays – including one the All-Pro middle linebacker ran 41 yards downfield to make.
This Sunday is the polar opposite. And not because it’s in the “Great White North.”
That fact makes Sunday’s test for the Seahawks (6-5) here at NFC North-leading Minnesota (8-3) and NFL rushing leader Adrian Peterson a linebackers game.
“I see it that way,” Wagner said. “He’s a big part of their offense. I am going to do my best to make sure I’m on him every single play.
“They have a really good tight end in (three-time Pro Bowler Kyle) Rudolph. So I feel like this is a linebackers game.”
So, namely, this is Wagner’s and his outside linebackers K.J. Wright’s and Bruce Irvin’s game.
“It’s going to be won there,” Wagner said.
His small grin amplified that he didn’t say “won or lost.”
It’s about as far opposite of Seattle’s 39-30 win last week can be. Behind Peterson, Minnesota is No. 1 in the NFL in rushing offense. It is 31st in passing. The Vikings ask second-year quarterback Teddy Bridgewater to take care of the ball, hand off to Peterson, take occasional shots down the field with play-action passes off that — and leave the rest to a defense that’s fourth in league against the pass and ninth overall.
In that way, you might say the Vikings have Seahawk-ed their way ahead of the Packers in the NFC North.
If you aren’t Bobby Wagner, that is.
When asked if Minnesota reminds him of his Seahawks, Wagner didn’t smile.
“There’s only one Seahawks,” he said.
Wagner and this Seattle program led by coach Pete Carroll have had mixed results against Peterson. In November 2012 he romped for 182 yards on just 17 carries with two touchdowns, but the Seahawks overcame that to win 30-20. The following season, again in Seattle in November, Peterson carried 21 times, yet gained just 65 yards with no scores. The Seahawks won 41-20 on their way to winning the Super Bowl.
“My rookie year? Aw, he had a really good game my rookie year,” Wagner said of 2012. “But the last time we played him we played him very well.
“I think schemes were a little different. Our tackling was a lot better the second time we played him.”
Wagner also detailed the key to stopping Peterson, the key to why Atlanta didn’t last week when Peterson had 159 of Minnesota’s 198 yards rushing in the Vikings’ road win.
“You could tell they weren’t really that patient,” Wagner said of the Falcons. “He’s a really patient runner. He waited for someone to pop out of their (assigned) gap, and as soon as he popped out of the gap (Peterson) took off big. You don’t want a guy like that taking off.
“This game, we have to be really, really disciplined, focused on our gaps — and making sure when we hit him, he feels it.
“It’s going to be fun, man.”
On offense, the Seahawks are likely to run rookie Thomas Rawls, who will start for the third consecutive game since Marshawn Lynch went out for eventual abdominal surgery, right at Minnesota the same way Peterson will be coming at Seattle. The Vikings are 20th in the league in run defense. Bigger, physical rushers have romped against them. Green Bay’s Eddie Lacy has only two 100-yard rushing games this season. One of them came at Minnesota two weeks ago.
Plus nose tackle Linval Joseph, a key to the Vikings’ run defense, will not play because of a foot injury. Strong-side linebacker Anthony Barr has a groin injury and free safety Harrison Smith is coming off a knee injury. Both are questionable to play against the Seahawks.
So expect Rawls inside and the elusiveness of quarterback Russell Wilson outside to be the thrust of Seattle’s offense to test Minnesota’s run defense. This could be the game Seahawks’ offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell dusts off Wilson’s read-option runs around the ends, especially if Seattle is successful in establishing Rawls’ inside rushes early.
The recent improvement in the offensive line, accelerated by the switch to Patrick Lewis over Drew Nowak as the starting center, has given Wilson the confidence in his blockers he won’t say he lacked earlier this season.
“We’re heading in the right direction,” Wilson said.
“I think the offensive line is playing great football right now. They’re being so solid up front. They’re picking up the calls. They’re seeing everything the right way. They’re playing unbelievable football up front.
“It starts with that.”
And this starts that most successful of months for the Seahawks the last three years. Seattle is 12-2 in December since 2012. Another run like that this month and the Seahawks, who currently hold the NFC’s final playoff spot, will have rallied back into the postseason.
“The goal obviously is to get to December with a chance,” Wilson said.
“And we have a chance.”
Gregg Bell: @gbellseattle
SEATTLE SEAHAWKS (6-5) at MINNESOTA VIKINGS (8-3)
10 A.M. SUNDAY, TCF BANK STADIUM, MINNEAPOLIS
TV: Ch. 13. Radio: 710-AM, 97.3-FM.
Line: Pick ’em.
The series: Seattle leads the series 8-5, dating to the first meeting in the Seahawks’ inaugural season of 1976 at old Metropolitan Stadium in suburban Bloomington, Minnesota. The Seahawks haven’t played in Minnesota since Nov. 22, 2009, a 35-9 loss in which Brett Favre threw four touchdown passes for the Vikings to Matt Hasselbeck’s one interception. Seattle has won the last two meetings, both at home, in 2012 and ’13.
SEATTLE’S KEYS TO VICTORY
Gap discipline “All Day”: Adrian Peterson’s dad nicknamed him that as a kid, because he could run and run all day. That’s what No. 28 in purple will be doing at Seattle. Defenders often talk about “gap discipline,” staying in their assigned gaps and not freelancing elsewhere to try to make plays. LB Bobby Wagner said patience and discipline in doing just that is the key to slowing Peterson, which Seattle did the last time they met in 2013. If the Seahawks do their jobs and only their own jobs, they may control Peterson and thus this game. “We can’t go rogue,” coordinator Kris Richard said. “Just trust.”
An on-time “Train”: The Seahawks’ own lead running back has a much less well-known nickname. His coach at Flint Northern High School in Michigan still calls Thomas Rawls “The Train.” The Vikings’ 20th ranked run defense has had problems stopping physical rushers this season. That’s exactly what Seahawks coaches love about their replacement for injured Marshawn Lynch. Expect early and frequent departures of “The Train” from the backfield in Minneapolis.
The return of the read option? Minnesota’s starting nose tackle, strong-side linebacker and free safety are banged up. Even if they play, Seattle is likely to test them by running right at them. All that inside running could lead to something we’ve seen far less of this season: Russell Wilson on read-option keeps around the outside, especially if the Vikings have to commit more to Rawls’ runs inside. It may be time for Wilson and play-caller Darrell Bevell to unveil the weapon that’s been hidden for most of 2015.
Seahawks 20-16. The game Seattle’s defense feels better about itself. The Seahawks slow Peterson, force Teddy Bridgewater into a game the QB and the Vikings would rather not play, and an improved offensive line allows Wilson to make just enough plays for the down-to-the-wire win.
54 — Bobby Wagner, LB (6-0, 241, fourth season): AP is coming at him “All Day.” If Wagner is in his All-Pro form, Seahawks will win.
92 — Brandon Mebane, NT, (6-1, 311, ninth season): If the Vikings run as much as expected, he and Ahtyba Rubin must consume blockers and running lanes to force Peterson toward Wagner.
34 — Thomas Rawls, RB (5-9, 215, rookie season): Vikings have been soft against hard, tough runners. Nobody on the Seahawks runs harder, tougher.
28 — Adrian Peterson, RB (6-1, 220, ninth season): Sensing a theme yet? Vikings will win or lose depending on how he fares against Seattle’s run defense.
82 — Kyle Rudolph, TE (6-6, 265, fifth season): Three-time Pro Bowl player leads the Vikings with four TD catches and is second on the team with 36 catches, four behind WR Stefon Diggs.
52 — Chad Greenway, LB (6-2, 242, 10th season): Has led Minnesota in tackles in each of the past six seasons. The weakside LB is the engine of the defense.