Bobby Wagner had had enough.
The Seattle Seahawks’ defensive captain was an integral member of the Legion of Boom defense that terrorized the NFL from 2012-16. So seeing the Seahawks rank dead last in the league in yards allowed per game was akin to a Black Lives Matter activist filling out a ballot straight red. Watching Seattle allow 63 fourth-quarter and overtime points through six games — more than the Seahawks allowed in all of their 2013 Super Bowl-winning season — was like watching rain falling up.
So last week Wagner issued an ultimatum to the defense: Get better or else.
If Sunday’s 37-27 victory over the San Francisco 49ers at CenturyLink Field is an indication, then the defense received the message loud and clear.
Through six weeks the Seattle defense gave up ground like a home-improvement store holding a two-for-one sale on bags of soil the first day of spring. The 2,875 yards the Seahawks allowed heading into Sunday’s game were the most any team allowed through six games in NFL history. Although Seattle was 5-1, alarm bells were ringing about whether a team can contend with a league-worst defense.
Following Seattle’s 37-34 overtime loss at Arizona the previous weekend, Wagner’s patience had run out: “We have the ability to improve, we just have to make our minds up. That’s it. No more talking, no more saying what we’re going to do, we have to go show it. At this point I have no words for you, it’s either we do it or we don’t.”
So for three-plus quarters against the 49ers the Seahawks’ defense turned back the clock, swarming around the field like an angry nest of murder hornets while disrupting everything San Francisco tried to do offensively.
The Seahawks blitzed 49ers quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo relentlessly. According to ESPN Stats & Info Seattle blitzed 23 times on 45 San Francisco dropbacks for an astonishing 51% clip, more than double the 24% blitz percentage the team had through the first six weeks. The result was Garoppolo was sacked three times, was completely ineffective when he did get passes off (11-for-16 for a mere 84 yards and an interception), and was forced from the game.
And Seattle, with four defensive starters inactive, received contributions from unexpected sources. Rookie defensive end Alton Robinson, coming off a game in which he played just seven snaps, was a constant nuisance. Nickelback D.J. Reed, just activated off the non-football injury list, came up with a crucial interception when the 49ers were in scoring position. And Stephen Sullivan, converted from tight end to defensive end just weeks earlier, chipped in as well.
“The thing I liked best about the game was the defensive play,” Seattle coach Pete Carroll said in his postgame press conference. “Up until the fourth quarter they had 112 yards or something like that. Run, pass, the whole thing, we played really good ball, (defensive coordinator Ken Norton Jr.) called a great game, Bobby Wagner was everywhere on the field, as well as a bunch of other guys played well.
“We’re getting there, we’re going to keep getting better. I know I keep saying it to you, but it’s because it’s going to happen.”
Of course Wagner was at the center of it all. The All-Pro middle linebacker made 11 tackles, three for loss. He was Seattle’s biggest factor in the blitz game, finishing with two sacks and four quarterback hits. When the Seahawks needed someone to make a play on third down, Wagner was the one who stepped up. This was the definition of leading by example.
“I felt like it started with myself,” Wagner said following the victory. “I think you have to sometimes show the guys what focus looks like. A lot of guys are young, so I was really locked in, prepared this week, and just wanted to come out and have a lot of energy.”
It wouldn’t be the 2020 Seahawks if there wasn’t some slippage in the fourth quarter. Seattle allowed touchdowns on San Francisco’s final three possessions, all to a back-up quarterback (Nick Mullens) who was without the team’s two best offensive weapons (tight end George Kittle limped off early in the fourth quarter, receiver Deebo Samuel was inactive). The Seahawks were an overturned two-point conversion away from being right back in fourth-quarter one-score purgatory, so this was a small step for Seattle’s defense not an about-face.
“We just felt like we needed to stop talking and do the work and let our play show,” Wagner said. “I thought we were a lot more aggressive, we were able to get in the backfield, get the quarterback off his spot. Obviously we still have things to work on, but it was a step in the right direction.”
And given the power of Seattle’s Russell Wilson-driven offense, a small step by the defense may be all that’s needed.
Follow Nick Patterson on Twitter at @NickHPatterson.