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Seahawks on tape: Bobby Wagner’s Tampa 2 pick-six, explained

NFL: San Francisco 49ers at Seattle Seahawks James Snook-USA TODAY Sports

Bobby Wagner’s performance last Sunday against the San Francisco 49ers was monumental. It was historically accomplished from a production standpoint too; his sack, forced fumble, fumble recovery and pick six puts him in small company.

Meanwhile, the NFC Defensive Player of the Week set a Seattle Seahawks landmark:

His interception return of 98 yards (I maintain it was 99 due to the positioning of his back foot) also broke an existing Seattle record:

It’s abundantly clear that the Seahawks’ defense is led by the best middle linebacker in the league. Just look at the Mic’d Up segment. Asides from his excellent uniform trash talk to Richard Sherman “that look ugly on you,” Wagner’s ability to galvanize, focus and instruct his fellow defenders was tangible from the video.

The pick-six

His pick-six demonstrated the athletic and cerebral aspects that combine to make Wagner a future Hall of Famer. Here, we’ll look at the tape and Wagner’s presser to explain how Steve Raible ended up ecstatically exclaiming “somebody bring him oxygen.”

The bizarreness that a garbage time situation produces is tough for any defense, particularly for the winning team. The 49ers were passing nearly every snap but letting the clock tick. The game was all-but-over, and for coaches it’s difficult to keep players motivated and competitive.

Seattle was playing their Tampa 2 defense, which they run in clear passing situations. It’s soft and tends to give up the short stuff, yet it allows them to rally to the football and not surrender the big play. In the tighter confines of the red-zone, it suddenly becomes a big challenge to pass against. Nick Mullens was lured into a confident mood as he padded his stats in the dying minutes.

Unfortunately for the 49ers quarterback, Wagner was still locked in. Asked about what leads to success inside the 20-yard line, Wagner responded:

“I think it’s your mindset. No matter what happened for you to get down into the redzone, you having that belief, that confidence, that you’re gonna stop this team from getting into the endzone. That, no matter where it’s at—if it’s on the 1-yard line, if it’s on the 10-yard line—it’s all about the mindset. Since I’ve been here we always preach that. And we’ve seen that.”

Kyle Shanahan, who once more proved his capabilities as an offensive schemer, gave Mullens pre-snap zone coverage identification by starting with running back Jeff Wilson out wide. The Seahawks had no surprise or disguise for Mullens; the coverage was still their soft Tampa 2.

Shanahan ran routes downfield that were designed to nestle in between the zone shells. For Seattle, the cornerbacks squeezed the flats while getting underneath sideline stuff. The linebackers got assigned intermediate stuff approaching the middle of the field—like slants and shallow crossers. The two high safeties were responsible for deep sideline routes.

For this reason, any cover 2 coverage is a “middle of the field open” defense as the safeties are playing a deep half. Unlike in cover 1 or cover 3, there is no player designated to the deep middle of the field. To somewhat close the middle of the field, in Tampa 2 the middle linebacker is tasked with dropping deep. Wagner here was no exception; he was the high hole player. His abilities make this a typical assignment when the Seahawks call this coverage.

Mullens, pounded all day, didn’t wait for his deeper routes to come open against the zone. Seattle played their shells very well, something which has really improved as the season has developed. Observe how they close. Mullens therefore progressed to his checkdown—Wilson.

Wagner viciously baited Mullens after he had no deep responsibility to execute. Here’s Wagner explaining how this process works:

“It’s more your body language. On that particular play, the running back kinda sat by me. I really didn’t move too much so [Mullens] probably thought that he could throw it on the outside because I was on the inside. But the whole time I had my back leg planted waiting for him to just look at the running back and as soon as I looked, and I’ve seen him move his shoulder, I knew he was gonna throw the ball, so I just broke on it.”

Wagner jumped the shallow hitch, extending his arms away from his frame and keeping his hands tight together to guide the ball into his clutches. He then had the speed to outrun Mullens and score a 98-yard touchdown (99*).

His sleeping celebration at the end was almost as clean as Pete Carroll’s fit:

Nothing new

While the pick-six from Wagner was fantastic to witness, his ability playing as the high hole player in Tampa 2 and cover 2 style defense is nothing new. In week 8’s match-up versus the Detroit Lions we saw it down in the redzone too:

You can read more about that play here.

Against the Minnesota Vikings, Wagner will have to be at his best. He’ll likely encounter some tough cover 3 matching assignments, having to run downfield with fast wide receivers. Yet the versatility of Wagner, who excels in every facet of linebacker play, means he’s going to be an Action Green blur of catastrophe for Minnesota on Monday night.

Seahawks fans, players and coaches understand Wagner performs at a consistent level of brilliance. The 90% chance of reaching the playoffs somehow reads even better when you consider Seattle’s defense has an All-Pro leader right in the middle of it. In prime-time, with the nation watching, plaudits for Wagner will deservedly rise. It’s a joy to watch a true great at his peak.