Of the many adjustments modern defenses have made to combat ever-changing offenses in today’s NFL, going all-in on hybrid positions has been at the forefront. There is the ‘money linebackers’—Mark Barron, Deone Bucannon and Su’a Cravens come to mind—linebackers that will line up down in the box and meet running backs in the hole, but can also go step-for-step with even the most natural pass catching ‘backs and tight ends. On the back end, there’s combination nickelback and safeties—Tyrann Mathieu and teammate Tyvon Branch are two familiar to the Seattle Seahawks—that can line up in the slot and effectively cover receivers and tight ends one on one.
More importantly to the quarterback position is the change edge players have undergone, particularly in a 3-4 defense. Instead of outside linebackers pinning their ears back and getting after the quarterback on nearly every snap, even the best at his position, Von Miller, drops into the flats and over the middle and does it with great success. The adjustment that 3-4 outside linebackers have made in their game and the way they’re deployed hasn’t just made them even more dangerous to opposing offenses; it has helped them nearly monopolize their position when it comes to All-Pro honors.
It’s hard to fault the voters for this; double-digit sacks, combined with splash plays off the line of scrimmage, are always going to grab the attention and accolades over triple-digit tackles. And most recently, with players like Justin Houston and Miller playing at the position, the honors are more than deserved.
In the past few seasons, it appears just superhuman efforts from 4-3 outside linebackers have been enough to garner All-Pro honors. Thomas Davis’ Herculean 2015 season and Lavonte David’s 2013 season—which was a culmination of as good of a two-year start to a career as any—are just two examples of the kind of performances needed to breakthrough the barrier 3-4 outside linebackers have built up in recent years. K.J. Wright is having one of those seasons.
Through 12 games, Wright has three sacks—already a career high—a forced fumble, and four passes defensed. The Seahawks defense has gone against the league’s heavyweight offenses in 2016, and come out with all their teeth still in place time and time again—and Wright is a huge part of that. He and Bobby Wagner have been this season’s version of Davis and Luke Kuechly: two de facto inside linebackers that can cover, blitz, and go sideline-to-sideline cleaning damn near everything up. It’s no coincidence that Keuchly and Davis were All-Pros in 2015, and that Wagner and Wright seem destined for the same honor this season.
Wagner and Wright’s 2016 form isn’t anything new to those of us in the Pacific Northwest. Wright has been the unsung hero of Seattle’s defense for years now, and Wagner is generally overshadowed by Kuechly—but since both entered the league in 2012 has consistently the second-best middle linebacker in the NFL, if not 1B.
The Seahawks defense has remained nearly the same through three defensive coordinators since Pete Carroll took the job, but second-year defensive coordinator Kris Richard has added one wrinkle that wasn’t seen much before: the double A-gap blitz. Wagner and Wright have been coming down to the line of scrimmage more often under Richard, and there have been numerous instances where one or both have come through the line unblocked, creating a big play. In last year’s home loss to the Arizona Cardinals, Richard dialed this up twice, resulting in huge plays.
In Carroll’s dominant cover-3 defense, the linebackers - Wright and Wagner - are most asked to play the hook/curl zone over the middle of the field. It’s something both players have mastered; how to use their size against big bodied tight ends, how to time contact as to not be flagged for pass interference, and how to get the ball out of the receiver’s hands once they get there. Wright’s 23 passes defensed since 2011 is tied for 26th by linebackers over that time, and despite finding himself one-on-one with tight ends or in a zone coming through a receiver’s back, he has just four defensive holding/pass interference penalties in his career.
Additionally, there isn’t a more instinctive defender in the league when it comes to identifying and reacting to screen passes. Since 2011, it seems like every time Seattle’s opponent tries a screen pass, Wright arrives at the exact time the ball does.
The level that Wright is playing at in 2016 may not be too different than the level he’s been at for the past few seasons, but he’s seemingly gained a ton of traction among national media. At a position that’s judged alongside some of the game’s best pass rushers, and on a defense that has perhaps as many as four top-20 defenders, Wright continues to make people sit back and notice he’s making play after play. By the end of the year Wright will have done everything possible to deservedly break through and see his name next to Miller’s on the All-Pro team, and that still may not be enough. But if he and his defensive fellows’ play keeps up over the next two months, he’ll have much bigger things on his mind come February.