Seahawks linebackers making name for themselves

RENTON — The Seahawks’ secondary is so well known that national media outlets sometimes refer to the entire defense as the Legion of Boom, the fan-suggested nickname adopted by Seattle’s back four two seasons ago.

And it’s understandable that Seattle’s secondary, led by a collection of Pro-Bowl players and All-Pros like cornerback Richard Sherman and safeties Earl Thomas and Kam Chancellor, has become the face of the league’s best defense. It was also deserved when, as more people started watching Seattle’s defense more closely, they realized that a multidimensional pass rush led by Michael Bennett and Cliff Avril also deserved a lot of credit for last year’s championship season.

But what of the linebackers?

It’s not as if Seattle’s linebackers were completely anonymous last season. The Super Bowl MVP, after all, was outside linebacker Malcolm Smith. However, when most people talk about what makes Seattle’s defense go, few think of the group between that pass rush and the Legion of Boom.

This year, the most underrated part of Seattle’s defense plans to make people take notice. And if early offseason workouts are any indicator, the Seahawks linebackers are ready to turn some heads. Seemingly in every session of organized team activities, a linebacker is coming up with a big play, be it an interception or pass breakup or running play stuffed in the backfield — the big hits, of course, have to be saved for game action.

“We’re just playing defense,” middle linebacker Bobby Wagner said. “We don’t call ourselves the best; we’ve got to prove it every day, whether it’s practice or on the field. Us as linebackers, we’re really trying to stand out.

“I love the D-line, and the secondary gets a lot of talk, but you will talk about the linebackers this year.”

Seattle’s linebackers aren’t underrated because people don’t think they’re good. Wagner and K.J. Wright have both played at near Pro-Bowl levels during the past two seasons. Smith has excelled when injuries and suspensions have put him into a starting role. Bruce Irvin showed flashes last year while adjusting to a switch from defensive end to strongside linebacker.

Rather, the linebacking corps tends to be overlooked because Seattle’s defense also includes two of the NFL’s best defensive players, regardless of position, in Thomas and Sherman, and another elite safety who might be the most feared hitter in the game in Chancellor.

But if Wagner and company have it their way, 2014 will be the year when even casual NFL fans know Seattle’s linebackers as well as they know the Legion of Boom.

“I feel like we’ve got to earn a nickname,” said Wagner, who has 260 tackles and five interceptions in his first two seasons. “Those are Pro-Bowlers and All-Pros, so we got to earn some stuff first. But I feel that’s going to happen this year.”

What is perhaps most interesting about Wagner’s goal to have the linebackers make names for themselves is that we don’t yet know who the starting linebackers will be. The Seahawks opened the 2013 season with Wagner in the middle, Wright at strongside linebacker and Smith as the weakside linebacker. When Irvin came back from a season-opening suspension, he replaced Smith in the lineup, playing strongside while Wright slid over to the weakside. In addition to those four battling for playing time, Kory Toomer is hoping to carve out a role after missing all of last season due to injury, and rookie Kevin Pierre-Louis, a fourth-round pick, also comes into the mix with a lot of potential.

There has been some speculation that Irvin, who led NFL rookies in sacks in 2012, could be used more in a pass-rushing role with Chris Clemons gone, freeing up playing time for the Super Bowl MVP Smith. So far, the Seahawks say they’re committed to using Irvin at linebacker in the base defense. There is a lot of time remaining to determine roles, but once players return from injuries — Smith and Irvin are currently recovering from surgery — the Seahawks will be both talented and deep at linebacker.

However the roles shake out, expectations for Seattle’s nickname-free linebacking unit will be high. As linebackers coach Ken Norton Jr. told Sports Radio 950 KJR Monday, “I expect this group to be the best collection of athletes on the field. They have to master everything as far as playing defense … This group is a great collection of athletes, and they can’t wait to prove themselves every time they get on the field.”

In other words, Norton, like his players, expects big things this season. But if you really want to know how serious the Seahawks’ linebackers are about being noticed in 2014, consider Wagner’s last words after meeting with the media this week.

“Go Hawks,” Wagner said, borrowing the closing line of his team’s Pro Bowl quarterback, Russell Wilson.

Herald Writer John Boyle: jboyle@heraldnet.com.

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