Somehow this slipped under our beaks here at Field Gulls last week but Sports Illustrated’s Jenny Vrentas profiled Bobby Wagner and specifically his mental approach to the game of football Thursday for the MMQB, as part of its series called “Smarter Football”. Indeed, the piece caught my attention when SI’s Greg Bishop tweeted the link Tuesday while saying Wagner “may be the NFL’s smartest player”:
Bishop, a Seattle local, is know for his illuminating portraits of Seahawks players, including a look behind the scenes of Russell Wilson’s private life in 2014 and a penetrating glance at Doug Baldwin last summer—but here it’s Vrentas who takes the All-Pro middle linebacker deep with insights into Wagner’s film preparation and his presnap reads and assignments on the field:
“It’s a prerequisite of Wagner’s position to know where everyone needs to line up and what their responsibilities are,” Vrentas writes. “The defensive call from coordinator Kris Richard comes in through his helmet radio, and he communicates it to the 10 other defenders on the field. Wagner then stands at the front of the huddle. He watches how the offense lines up, starting with where the tight end is, which determines the strong and weak sides of the formation. It’s Wagner’s responsibility to set the defensive front, which means aligning the defensive linemen and linebackers with the correct gaps and shading in relation to the offensive front.”
Those are the standard duties of a middle linebacker in a 4-3. More particular to Wagner, as Vrentas tells it, are the “library of tendencies and tells” Wagner has developed heading into his sixth year for diagnosing the offense’s playcall and moving to the ball before his ordinary reads might otherwise lead him there, and before blockers can get into position to thwart him.
“There are certain offensive players in the league who, Wagner says, tighten their gloves before the snap if they know they are going to get the ball. Wagner mentally logs which backs prefer to make a cut to the left or to the right, and which linemen have trouble blocking toward a certain direction. The best players look the same regardless of the play or their responsibility, but many struggle without even realizing the secrets they’re leaking.”
Vrentas outlines one play from early in the Seahawks’ regular season win over the Atlanta Falcons, when Wagner stormed the A-gap to tackle Devonta Freeman in the backfield and force a Falcons third-and-long. She also describes Wagner’s hidden role in the play that produced Earl Thomas’s famous knockout blow against Rob Gronkowski versus the New England Patriots.
Anyway, the whole piece is extremely complimentary of Wagner and shows special examination of the ways Wagner’s study and instincts impacts games beyond his excellent speed and strength. Plus a good document for peeling back the curtain for how defensive football works at multiple levels and the cerebral side of the game. Worth reading the complete report. Here’s that link again: