RENTON, Wash. (AP) Listing all the ways Seattle linebacker Bobby Wagner believes he's a better player than four years ago when the Seahawks last came across the Atlanta Falcons in the postseason would be lengthy.
At the top of the list would be his improvement as a pass defender.
''There's a lot of routes that I probably did not see when I was a rookie,'' Wagner said this week. ''I have more knowledge of the game than I did back then.''
Ask around and you'll get raves from teammates, opponents and observers about the linebacker Wagner has become heading into Saturday's NFC playoff game at Atlanta. He led the NFL in tackles during the regular season, was voted to the All-Pro team for the second time in his career, and in the playoff opener against Detroit last week had another 10 tackles to lead Seattle.
Wagner's always been a stout run defender and an excellent tackler. He's been steady playing behind a Seattle line that does its job keeping offensive linemen from getting to the second level. But Wagner agrees that his understanding of the passing game is the big reason he's making enough tackles to lead the NFL. And why he's grown from being a question mark when he was drafted in the second round in 2012 to one of the premier linebackers in the NFL, a Defensive Player of the Year contender.
''I feel like my route recognition is a lot better; it's not where I want it to be, but it's a lot better,'' Wagner said. ''It has allowed me to get more tackles because my breaks are cleaner because I know where the routes are coming or I know where to expect the ball to be thrown. It's something I really worked on.''
A lot the knowledge of the air game has come through experience. Not surprisingly, Wagner also turned to a pair of teammates in particular to help improve in those specific areas of understanding pass coverage and recognizing tendencies: cornerback Richard Sherman and fellow linebacker K.J. Wright.
''(Sherman) I feel is the best corner in the league, so if you have the best corner in the league why wouldn't you ask him for what he sees? And I feel K.J. recognizes routes better than anyone I've seen before,'' Wagner said.
Sherman's resume doesn't need explanation. He's been one of the top cornerbacks in the NFL for the past five seasons. Wright, while often overlooked because of the rest of the stars on Seattle's defense, has been a critical part of the Seahawks' pass coverage since he became a starter as a rookie in 2011.
''We talked a lot on the field about adjustments about splits, about formations,'' Sherman said. ''He started to see the things that I saw. We would watch film and I would show him the things that I saw and the indicators that I had.''
It's learning those pre-snap reads that have allowed Wagner to never sub out. Both Wagner and Wright have become every-down linebackers who remain on the field even in obvious passing downs. Seattle's base defense has sometimes morphed from using three linebackers to going with five defensive backs. But even in those circumstances Wagner - and Wright, usually - stay on the field.
''The big thing is the pre-snap clues as far as anticipation in what is coming and just studying quarterbacks. A lot of quarterbacks are the same and a lot of combinations are the same, so whenever you see someone going out, you know something is coming in,'' Wright said. ''So just little small stuff that I believe that we both have improved on and has shown up.''
NOTES: Seattle coach Pete Carroll said DT Tony McDaniel (concussion) and FB Marcel Reese (foot) will both play against the Falcons. McDaniel missed last week's game against Detroit. ... Carroll was coy about the status of RB C.J. Prosise, who returned to practice this week after he suffered a broken shoulder blade in mid-November. Carroll said they would make a determination Friday as to Prosise's status. ''We're not sure how we're going to do that but we'll check him after the whole week's work,'' Carroll said.
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