SEATTLE -- Pete Carroll stopped bouncing on the way to his postgame news conference, doubled back and squeezed through a group of reporters so he could share a moment with the bedrock of his defense.
"Appreciate you," Wagner beamed back, like a student who knew he aced the test.
On a strange, neon green night when Carroll's hip thrusting, griping defensive stars stole the headlines, the 65-year-old coach made sure to cherish the players who don't give him gray hairs. Thursday night's 24-3 victory over the Los Angeles Rams showcased what's different about this NFC West title for the Seahawks, the team's fourth under Carroll. Wagner and his tag team partner K.J. Wright are where it all starts.
The key defensive play Thursday night came in the first quarter. On fourth-and-1 for the Rams inside the 10-yard line, Wagner met 225-pound Los Angeles commercial starTodd Gurley in the hole and pushed Gurley backward. Wright, pursuing the play from behind, came to help his friend and finish the play off. The Rams wouldn't come so close to a touchdown again.
"They are both the best tacklers I've ever seen in football," cornerback DeShawn Shead said after the game.
Wagner added seven tackles to his league-leading total Thursday night, with Wright piling up 10 tackles in addition to his usual excellent pass coverage. While Russell Wilson is running out of time to work out the kinks in the Seahawks' offense, the defense lived in the Los Angeles backfield, tallying eight tackles for loss. Wagner and Wright's speed, versatility and smarts have stood out all season for a defense that was once defined by its defensive line and secondary.
"I definitely think it's our best season together," Wagner said about his year complementing Wright. "We always work off each other. We just feed off each other's energy. We feed off each other's play. When I see K.J. go make a play, I want to go make a play and vice versa. I love watching his film. It's pretty dope."
Wagner was a second-round pick in 2012, arriving one season after Wright was taken in the fourth-round. Wagner's speed and instincts at middle linebacker stood out immediately and he's still the bigger playmaker of the two. Three of Wagner's plays on Thursday night ended drives, including two quarterback hits on blitzes. (Wagner was sanguine about the plays, wishing Rams rookie Jared Goff held the ball a little longer so he could get sacks.)
Wright had a big tackle for loss and other run stuffs near the line of scrimmage, but his skill set as a weakside linebacker is more subtle.
He's a product of this era, a hybrid linebacker who can cover tight ends, running backs and wide receivers. Wagner called Wright the "best coverage linebacker in the league" and other teammates lauded Wright's intelligence.
"K.J. is one of the smartest linebackers I've ever seen," Shead said. "We call him the 'screen master' because he always knows the screen is coming ... he's there before the running back gets the ball sometimes."
When Wright prevents a screen play before it starts, it often doesn't show up in the box score. But his teammates and coaches know.
"Bobby has had a great season. ... And K.J. has gone right together, shoulder to shoulder, the whole time. They haven't missed a trick, nothing, all year long. It's been fantastic to see them play in concert with the scheme, the principles, and the intensity, and the focus," Carroll said, emphasizing each word with his own rising intensity. "That's who those guys are. We could not expect guys to play better than those two guys are playing."
Carroll appreciates his linebackers because they execute his vision at the highest level. After more than five seasons in Carroll's scheme, they have reached that career sweet spot where experience and talent meet. Perhaps more than any of the great players on this historic Seahawks defense, Wagner and Wright are just hitting their career peaks.
"When you look at K.J., just look at his dimensions," defensive end Frank Clark said. "Blockers can't even get on him because of his long arms and his length. When you look at Bobby, he is so fast and quick that he comes in and strikes and finishes. He shows how fast he gets to the ball and makes those tackles. It seems like he averages 15 tackles a game."
Clark, Shead and Carroll all credited Wagner and Wright's leadership as vital to the Seahawks' defense. Younger teammates teased Wagner for all the media attention he got, while Clark said he was "blessed" to play with two linebackers that are so relentless.
The lack of drama coming from the linebacker group is noticeable, especially on a night when cornerback Richard Shermantook issue with playcalling and the team's best defensive end, Michael Bennett, was penalized for his celebrations. If Sherman is a high-maintenance talent, Wagner and Wright are low-key professionals.
Shead said that "winning division titles never gets old," and the locker room was rather jubilant for a team that has done this all before. This is a talented Seahawks team that has lost focus too often this season, but they are in great position to earn a playoff bye at 9-4-1. They are poised to achieve all their goals, and they took time Thursday night to enjoy the moment.
"This is what we set out to do each year," Wagner said. "To be able to celebrate with my dudes."