Seahawks linebackers K.J. Wright and Bobby Wagner are equally adept at the pass and run, to the point they've rarely left the field this season. That will be put to the test by the Falcons' passing game.
RENTON — When Seahawks linebacker K.J. Wright watches film, he’s usually focusing on the offense, looking for clues on how to stop that week’s opponent.
But there’s one thing he sees regularly in the defenses in those viewing sessions that stops him in his tracks — linebackers leaving the field in passing situations, replaced by defensive backs.
“You see it on film and you are like ‘man, that ain’t right,’” Wright said. “That’s not right at all.’’
That’s not something that happens to Wright, who plays Seattle’s weakside linebacker spot, or to middle linebacker Bobby Wagner.
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Each is equally adept enough at pass coverage and defending the run, so much so that they never are asked to leave the field. Wagner has played every defensive snap so far (245) while Wright has missed only four.
“Bobby is as fast as any defensive back that we have on our team, so what difference does it make if you put another DB out there?” said Seattle defensive coordinator Kris Richard. “That guy can run. And K.J. is one of our smartest football players, one of the smartest I’ve ever been around.”
For Wagner and Wright, playing every down is a badge of honor.
“We take a lot of pride in that — not having to leave the field, not having to come in with dime packages,” Wagner said.
It’s also one of the many facets of Seattle’s defense that makes the Seahawks particularly tough since Seattle doesn’t need to change personnel greatly to be equally stout against the run or the pass. The Seahawks have been in either a base defense (four linemen, three linebackers, four defensive backs) or a nickel defense (four linemen, two linebackers, five defensive backs — with strongside linebacker Mike Morgan replaced by nickelback Jeremy Lane) for all but one snap this season.
The pass coverage skills of Wright and Wagner, though, will be tested Sunday by the Atlanta Falcons like they rarely have been in the past.
While standout receiver Julio Jones leads the Falcons with 24 catches for 517 yards, what the Seahawks say has been a real key to making Atlanta the top offense in the NFL at 457.4 yards per game is the diversity of its receivers.
That may be most evident in the pass-catching threat present by running backs Tevin Coleman and Devonta Freeman — a defensive responsibility that figures to fall most heavily on Wright and Wagner.
Freeman is Atlanta’s leading rusher with 410 yards but also has 14 catches for another 117. Coleman has 160 yards rushing but also has 17 receptions for 313 yards.
Making Coleman a particularly tough running back to defend is that the Falcons will split him out and throw it to him down field instead of just on short passes out of the backfield.
“Teams usually split out running backs and send them on seam routes but never throw it to them,” Wright said. “But this team actually sends these guys vertical and (quarterback Matt Ryan) actually looking at them like a number one target.”
The 6-1, 210-pound Coleman had four catches for 132 yards in last week’s 23-16 win at Denver, making some of his biggest plays when split outside and matched up against a linebacker. For the game, Freeman and Coleman combined for 286 yards of total offense — 77 percent of Atlanta’s 372.
Along the way, Coleman was judged to have reached a maximum speed of 22.25 miles an hour, according to the NFL, making him the fastest ball carrier in any game last week. The 5-8, 206-pound Freeman fits the prototype of a power back.
“Freeman is more of their downhill, follow-the-fullback type guy,” Wagner said. “They like to get (Coleman) out on a lot of screens and a lot of fast-hitting plays.”
But if it all sounds like a challenge for Seattle’s linebackers, Wright had another term for it as well.
“This game is like a linebacker’s dream where we have to do everything,” Wright said.
It’s not necessarily anything new. Wagner and Wright have teamed to give Seattle one of the best every-down linebacking duos in the NFL since 2012 — when Wagner arrived as a second-round pick, the year after Wright was taken in the fourth round.
Each is also now getting paid like one of the best at their position — Wagner is the second-highest paid middle linebacker in the NFL, according to OvertheCap.com and Wright the fifth-highest among 4-3 outside linebackers.
Sunday presents one of the clearest chances yet for each to prove their worth and their value.
“We definitely have our hands full,” Wright said. “But it’s going to be fun for us.”