EAGAN, Minn. — It shows you how quickly things change in the NFL that the Seattle Seahawks’ “Legion of Boom” secondary is completely gone. It was just three years ago the Seahawks were led by the likes of Richard Sherman, Kam Chancellor and Earl Thomas to the fewest allowed points in the NFL.
The 2018 version of Seattle’s defense isn’t inept by any means, but they do not dominate like the good old days. The Seahawks are ninth in points allowed and 16th in opposing QB passer rating.
Part of the reason they have survived the exits of multiple stars is the rise of the NFL’s most underappreciated linebacker Bobby Wagner, who ranks as the No. 1 player at the position by Pro Football Focus’s grading system.
Bobby Wagner is the NFL's top linebacker through 13 weeks. pic.twitter.com/jeoJ4c4K2o
— Pro Football Focus (@PFF) December 5, 2018
Wagner has an admirer in both Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer and quarterback Kirk Cousins.
“It’s a combination of a lot of things,” Zimmer said Thursday. “He has great speed. I think he sees things really well. He is very instinctual. You know, with that position and their defense, it gives them a lot of flexibility to run and get to the football.”
“I told him in preseason that he’s one of — if not the best — linebacker in the NFL,” Cousins said. “I believe he was NFC Defensive Player of the Week last week and rightfully so. He’s playing at a high level and that’s what I expected from him.”
Wagner offers the unique challenge of being a dominating coverage linebacker. He has been targeted 51 times this season and allowed just 33 receptions and a QB rating against of 78.3, the fourth best in the NFL (per Pro Football Focus). The former Utah State standout also has seven passes defended. Wagner is one of only five linebackers with more than 350 coverage snaps who has not allowed a touchdown into their coverage.
Zimmer said the value of linebackers in coverage has morphed over the years. Players with Wagner’s skill set are much more dangerous with the increase in passing attacks and play-action games.
“There’s much more of a throwing league so linebackers have to be able to cover in space a lot more than they used to,” Zimmer said. “A lot of times back in the day they’d ask one guy to go to the middle now a lot of a guys have to run vertical with guys, so yeah I think that’s changed quite a bit.”
The Seahawks do not ask Wagner to blitz often, but when he does rush the passer he has a high success rate with nine pressures on 31 rushes.
“You have to block him, you have to protect him, you have have to know where he is when he drops back in coverage, those are the challenges,” Cousins said. “If you don’t block him, if you don’t pick him up in blitzes, and if you don’t know when he zone drops, then he’s going to have a great day and you’re not.”
Keeping Wagner at bay will be important for a team that has struggled at times on offense against quality teams.
The one weakness in the Seattle defense that the Vikings may be able to take adavantage of is the Seahawks’ run stuffing ability. Seattle is tied for last in yards per rush allowed. But Wagner can impact the running game too. He is the No. 2 rated linebacker against the run by PFF’s grades and ranks 13th in total run stops.