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Thanks to Bobby Wagner, Seahawks defense still lowering boom

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RENTON, Wash. --They munched on juicy ribeye steaks, nibbled on sumptuous portions of mashed potatoes and sipped expensive red wine. They talked about family, upcoming vacations and how quickly the new NFL season would be upon them. There were more than 40 Seahawks players crammed into that dimly lit steakhouse in downtown Bellevue back in June, all hoping to enjoy a night on the town before their final organized team activities ended. The person who relished the evening most was the man working the room, drifting in and out of various conversations, doing his best to connect with all his teammates.

Middle linebacker Bobby Wagner knew there would be few opportunities during the offseason to get the entire Seahawks defense together. So, he and outside linebacker K.J. Wright planned and paid for that event just to ensure some good vibes for the future. The way Wagner envisioned it, that dinner would be the perfect chance to deliver a vital message -- that unity would be critical to whatever this team accomplished in the fall. As linebacker Barkevious Mingo said recently, "It was a way to say we're in this together, this is who this team is going to be made up of, that we're brothers. And that when things get hard, we know who to look to."

It wasn't that long ago the Seahawks defense had an abundance of Pro Bowl-caliber players to call on when it came to leadership, a group that included defensive ends Michael Bennett and Cliff Avril, and defensive backs like Richard Sherman, Kam Chancellor and Earl Thomas, the latter of whom held out until the start of the regular season and then went on injured reserve with a broken leg sustained in a Week 4 win over Arizona. Now Wagner, a seventh-year veteran, is the lone undisputed star of the bunch. It's a role that he's quite comfortable in, because he's been a dominant force since he entered the league as a second-round draft pick out of Utah State in 2012. The only difference this year, as Wagner clearly understood with that team dinner, is that the Seahawks need his calming presence more than ever.

Seattle appeared destined for a major rebuild after losing so many notable players from a franchise that won one Super Bowl (XLVIII), narrowly lost in another (XLIX) and made the playoffs in each of Wagner's first five seasons. However, the Seahawks currently are battling to keep their postseason hopes alive as they head into this week's Thursday night game with Green Bay. At 4-5, the Seahawks desperately need a win after close losses to the Los Angeles Chargers and Los Angeles Rams. Their schedule won't get any easier after the Packers, as they travel to Carolina on Nov. 25.

A huge key to Seattle's success will be the play of the 28-year-old Wagner, who's been up to the challenge of teaching old standards to new faces. "I've always believed the middle linebacker was the guy who ran the show," Wagner said. "As soon as they let me start calling the plays (as a rookie), I felt like this was my defense. We had a bunch of great leaders around here, and I was the person in the middle trying to control everything. But I never looked at it like, when those guys left, this was mine now. I saw it as just being my turn to maintain the level we've had over the last few years."

Seattle doesn't look like a team that has lost so much talent on defense. Even after giving up 25 and 36 points the last two weeks to the Chargers and Rams, respectively, the Seahawks are allowing 21.3 points (ninth in the NFL) and 346.9 total yards (12th) per game. They haven't been as sturdy against the run -- their average of 118.6 yards per game ranks 18th -- but Wagner has been a major reason behind this unit's early success. To understand just how good he's been, Pro Football Focus graded him as the top-rated middle linebacker in the league when it issued its midseason evaluations, and his current grade of 86.7 is tied with Carolina's Luke Kuechly for the highest among all linebackers with 300 snaps.

Furthermore, according to PFF, Wagner hasn't missed a single tackle on 69 attempts this season, a year after missing just three in 133 chances. Of the 126 defenders with 75-plus attempted tackles last season, Wagner missed the lowest percentage (2.3 percent).

Wagner produced 13 tackles in Seattle's 36-31 loss to the Rams on Sunday, but he was more impressive in that 25-17 loss to the Chargers on Nov. 4. He finished with 13 tackles, three pass deflections and a quarterback hit while dominating the second half of a game that ended with Seahawks wide receiver David Moore dropping a potential touchdown pass in the back of the end zone. When asked about Wagner's play in that game, Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll said, "I thought it was the best half of football that I've seen him play. I don't know if he's ever played better than that. He was everywhere -- in pass defense and the run game. He was a really big factor in (us) stopping them in the second half."

Wagner has been similarly impactful in the Seahawks locker room. When Mingo moved from strongside linebacker to the weak side earlier this season, he was completely overwhelmed by the transition, until Wagner started offering key tips during games and practices. When rookie linebacker Shaquem Griffin joined the team as a fifth-round pick, it was Wagner who counseled him on the importance of showing up to work early, taking care of his body and watching as much film as humanly possible. Wagner was just as essential to the Seahawks after the team opened the season with an 0-2 start.

That would've been the time for all those young players to start believing what the skeptics already we're saying about them -- that the glory days in Seattle were over. Instead, Wagner has implored them to keep fighting, especially since all of the Seahawks' losses this season have come by eight points or less. "He just let guys know to keep their heads up," said defensive end Frank Clark. "Sometimes guys come into this league and they think the season is over because we're 0-2. It's that college mindset. They have to realize you have a long season to get the job done. That's one thing Bobby has helped us understand."

Added Wagner: "Being here in my seventh year, we've had it all. We've started 0-2 and made the playoffs before. So, it's more of an expectation. You expect to finish. You expect to be in a position where you control your fate. That's what you expect here. I have that confidence because of everything we've gone through. We have a tough stretch, but if we do it right, it will be a huge growth for us and it will put us in a nice position."

Wagner's faith in things working out comes from a genuine place. When he was a star athlete coming out of Colony High School in Ontario, California, he received only one major college scholarship offer -- to Utah State. Wagner almost didn't take that opportunity because a blizzard hit the Logan campus as he arrived for his official visit. Wagner called his mother, Phenia, to say he couldn't imagine going to school in a place with such inclement weather. She told him that coming back to California wasn't an option unless he accepted that full ride.

Unfortunately, Wagner's mother never got the chance to watch her son become a college standout, as she died unexpectedly from a heart attack in 2009, right after Wagner's freshman year with the Aggies. What she did do was leave him with a crucial life lesson, one that has resonated with Wagner ever since. "One of the things she taught me was that if you're good enough, people will find you," Wagner said. "I always took that to heart."

That message stuck with Wagner as his career progressed. He was named the Western Athletic Conference Defensive Player of the Year as a senior. He went to the Senior Bowl in 2012 and led the North with seven tackles, including one for loss, and an interception. When pneumonia prevented him from attending the NFL Scouting Combine, he impressed enough at Utah State's pro day -- running a 4.46-second 40-yard dash, jumping 39.5 inches in the vertical and leaping 11 feet in the broad jump, while measuring 6-feet and 245 pounds -- that Seattle selected him with the 15th pick of the second round.

The best thing Wagner had going for him was he was joining a defense filled with players who knew a thing or two about being underrated. Sherman and Chancellor had been fifth-round picks coming into the league. Bennett watched the entire 2009 draft go by without anyone calling his name. They welcomed players who had an oversized chip on their shoulders, while encouraging such types simply to be themselves.

Wagner did experience the typical growing pains for any young player -- in his rookie season, he once tried to call out an opposing team's play before the ball was snapped, only to have veteran defensive tackle Brandon Mebane tell him his guess was wrong -- but he matured in a hurry. He finished that first season with 140 tackles, three interceptions and two sacks. "Everybody knew how talented he was," said Seahawks defensive coordinator Ken Norton, who was Seattle's linebackers coach when Wagner arrived. "In college, he was an outside linebacker, so middle linebacker was a new position for him. He was thrust in with some older veterans, so everybody was looking at him to see if he belonged in the huddle. But all those older guys helped him grow."

Said Wagner: "All those guys taught me something. I learned from the way (former defensive tackle) Red Bryant led. Mebane taught me a lot about understanding the game. Sherm taught me how to speak your mind, but he didn't get enough love for how good of a person he was. People didn't realize how hard Earl Thomas practiced. He practiced like it was a game every single day. I was blessed to take something away from all those guys while they were here."

Wagner's career hasn't slowed down since he entered the NFL. He's played in four Pro Bowls. He's been named first-team All-Pro three times. After Seattle missed the postseason last year, he talked about how much he wanted to improve as a pass defender during the offseason. He already has a career-high nine pass deflections this season, along with a team-high 65 tackles.

Wagner understands the example he's setting with his play on the field. He also realizes the one he's establishing with his own approach to leadership. It's not lost on any of the older Seahawks that he's become a more vocal presence in the locker room. Wagner is now the person who's expected to give the pregame speeches, to be a comforting influence in difficult moments and to indoctrinate younger players into the Seahawks' culture.

When asked about the way Wagner has approached this season, cornerback Shaquil Griffin said, "He's always making sure everyone is prepared. Not just the guys who are starting, but everyone right on down the line. He takes it upon himself to make sure that happens." Added Wright: "Bobby really didn't have to talk that much when he first got here. We had Sherm and Kam and Bennett and Earl, so he stayed pretty quiet. Now he's being more vocal."

"Bobby is a just a lot more confident," said Norton, who joined the Oakland Raiders in 2015 only to return to Seattle as the DC this season. "The foundations that you put into young players, you never know if it's going to stick. With him, it all stuck. When I left him, he was in a development stage. He was able to take that all to another level, and it's exciting to see him grow."

Everyone around the Seahawks feels the same way. There's little doubt this is Russell Wilson's team, but the defense clearly belongs to Wagner. You could see as much as the team prepared for a practice last Wednesday, and Shaquil and Shaquem Griffin teased Wagner while he spoke to a local television reporter. At one point, Wagner pointed down the hall at the twin brothers and explained that younger players need to think twice before harassing a veteran of his stature.

Wagner obviously was having a good time with the exchange, but that moment also said plenty about the job he's doing. As much as he must lead this defense with his play, he has to keep bonding with the younger players as well. "His success is directly connected to their success," Norton said. "He can't just hold all the knowledge and keep it to himself, because then he leaves nothing behind. He knows how to pass it on to make the other guys better. And that ultimately will make all of us better."

"I appreciate the guys who were here [in the past], but I've also tried to find an appreciation for the guys who are playing their spots now," Wagner said. "I wanted to figure out what was special about them instead of hoping we could find somebody similar to the old guys. Anybody stepping in for Kam or Sherm or Mike Bennett, they might think they need to be that person when that's not necessarily the case. They only have to be the best version of themselves, and that will be great for our defense. That's what will take this thing to a whole new level."

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