RENTON — With middle linebacker Bobby Wagner set to return from an ankle injury, the Seattle Seahawks have a bit of a problem.
Well maybe it’s not so much a problem as much as it is a tough decision.
Through seven games this season, the Seahawks have discovered they have four starting-caliber linebackers for three positions, and for only the second time this season, all of them will be available.
When the Seahawks opened the season with Bruce Irvin serving a four-game suspension, Malcolm Smith played strongside linebacker in his place. And when Irvin returned for Seattle’s Week 5 game in Indianapolis, Smith was the odd man out, playing just six snaps on defense. Wagner suffered an ankle injury in that game, however, causing him to miss the next two games. In those games, K.J. Wright moved from weakside linebacker to the middle, and Smith was back in the lineup as the weakside linebacker, which is the position he played at USC and had played in Seattle prior to switching positions this season.
And Smith didn’t just hold his own in his return to the lineup, he excelled. In Arizona, Smith was one of Seattle’s best players on defense, recording a team-high eight tackles, including a sack and two tackles for loss. The website ProFootballFocus.com currently has Smith as its No. 2 rated 4-3 outside linebacker, and Seattle’s coaches have noticed his improved play this season.
“Malcolm’s a very mature, really good football player,” said linebackers coach Ken Norton, Jr., who also coached Smith at USC. “He’s strong, really fast, he’s smart — he was an econ major — so he’s very capable. Going into the season, we knew he was going to be playing, we just didn’t know where. He’s the type of guy where his speed is a weapon, he can really do a lot of good things on the field, so every chance we get to play him, he’s taking advantage of his opportunities. And the ability to play multiple positions has given him a chance to play and it’s really helped us out too, because he’s a big-time contributor to the team.”
Smith doesn’t think he’s changed drastically this year, just that he’s been able to stay healthy and is getting significant playing time for the first time since the Seahawks drafted him in the seventh round of the 2011 draft. As head coach Pete Carroll has noted, Smith also seems to be thriving in his move back to the weakside linebacker spot, though he also played well on the strongside earlier this season.
“I think it’s just opportunity honestly,” Smith said. “Just being able to take advantage of being healthy and building confidence more than anything. I think that’s the only difference. Just playing, just being out there gives you that confidence. You learn how to handle certain situations being in them. Just getting that opportunity, you see young guys improve from playing. It’s hard to improve from the sideline.”
When Irvin returned from suspension after four games, Norton didn’t hide his excitement about getting the first-round pick back, saying it was “just like having a new toy.” Smith, rather cleverly, joked on Twitter, “so this is how Woody felt in Toy Story.” (Does that make Irvin Buzz Lightyear?)
But rather than sulk about losing one starting job, Smith excelled when given another chance.
“We look for all those things,” Norton said. “We want guys who are very competitive, hard working, want to prove everyone wrong.”
Smith downplayed the idea Norton’s “new toy” comments actually motivated him, saying he can only worry about taking advantage of the chances he gets. So far, he’s been doing that and then some.
“I can’t worry about it,” Smith said. “I feel like I know our coaching staff pretty well and I’m sure they feel like they know me well, so I’ve just got to be ready when the opportunities come. I just try to take advantage of my opportunities. You can’t really worry about anything that’s outside of your control.”
So what happens next? Wagner could be eased back in a part-time role this week, but eventually he’s going to be an every-down player as Seattle’s middle linebacker. Wright has established himself as a versatile playmaker, and Irvin’s pass rush ability and speed make it hard to keep him off the field, but Smith has also shown he deserves significant playing time. All four will play some, but somebody is going to lose snaps going forward if everyone is healthy.
“It’s a competition,” Norton said. “That’s the central theme of the program. The guy who practices the best will be the guy who plays.”
Herald Writer John Boyle: firstname.lastname@example.org.