RENTON, WA - Now in his 10th season manning the middle of the Seahawks defense, Bobby Wagner has ample experience facing dual threat quarterbacks who can inflict damage on opponents both as a passer and a runner.
For the past decade since the duo broke into the league together as day two draft picks, he's squared off against Russell Wilson on the practice field. During Seattle's rise to Super Bowl champion, the team had to first get through Colin Kaepernick and San Francisco in the NFC West. Early in his career, Robert Griffin and Washington as well as Cam Newton and Carolina also stood as obstacles getting to the big game.
In recent seasons, Wagner has been exposed to the NFL's new class of mobile quarterbacks, including chasing after Ravens star Lamar Jackson during the 2019 season and struggling to contain a Newton-like Josh Allen with the Bills a year ago. Most notably, however, he and his teammates have had to deal with the arrival of Kyler Murray in the division, facing the uber-dynamic athlete twice a year orchestrating Kliff Kingsbury's offense in Arizona.
Statistically, as indicated by coach Pete Carroll on Wednesday, Murray hasn't been running the ball near as frequently for Arizona this year. In seven games, the former No. 1 overall pick out of Oklahoma has rushed 49 times for 147 yards and a trio of touchdowns, averaging only three yards per attempt.
But don't let those numbers fool you. Only one year removed from eclipsing 800 rushing yards and scoring 11 touchdowns on the ground, Murray remains one of the NFL's most dangerous running quarterbacks. On top of his elite athleticism, he also has been one of the best passers this year, leading all qualified signal callers with a 72.7 percent completion rate and 8.9 yards per attempt average.
“He has definitely continued to clean stuff up," Carroll assessed. "He’s completing 73 percent of his passes, that’s hard to do this late in the year. He’s really decisive, seems really in control with what they are doing, and they do a ton of stuff. Each week they give you new game plans and he manages all of that. He’s not running a whole lot, he runs when he gets the opportunity, but they are not forcing the issue for him to run the football. They are just doing it really well and he makes them a very dangerous team to deal with.”
Wagner has seen firsthand how Murray can torch a defense in a myriad of ways. Helping guide the Cardinals back from a 10-point deficit, he lit up the Seahawks for 360 passing yards, three passing touchdowns, 67 rushing yards, and a rushing touchdown in a statement 37-34 overtime victory at State Farm Stadium last October.
Comparing him to other mobile quarterbacks he's been tasked with slowing down over the years, Wagner sees a lot of similarities. But if there's an area of his game that makes him unique from his predecessors, the veteran linebacker believes his quickness stands out on the field and he's witnessed Murray become more aggressive using his talents as a runner as his career has progressed.
"I think you’ve seen the growth from, if you remember when he was first got into the league, when he was taking the runs and taking off, he wasn’t really looking to get yards. If you get yards cool, but anytime he saw a defender he just ran out of bounds," Wagner remarked. "As you’ve seen the growth in his confidence, now he’s looking to finish the run sometimes or make that cut and go up the field. I think you just have to be mindful of that."
From Wagner's perspective, as he has learned from defending Wilson, Jackson, Kaepernick, and other mobile quarterbacks over the years, one of the toughest parts of facing that style of player is knowing whether or not they are going to protect their body by slipping out of bounds or try to get upfield for extra yardage off of scrambles. That can be especially tough with Murray, who plays like jitterbug and can be very difficult to corral in space when he does decide to tuck and run.
"Sometimes that’s the tricky plays," Wagner said. "Is he going to just run out of bounds, or is he going to trick you and take the ball up? That’s something that you have to be conscious of."
As is the case preparing for any opponent in the NFL, Wagner relies on film study to learn how opponents deploy their quarterbacks in the run game. When preparing for the Panthers, he expected a dose of QB power with the 250-pound Newton excelling running between the tackles unlike any other quarterback in the sport. Kaepernick and Griffin thrived off of read option plays, using their elite speed to pick up big chunks of yardage off the edge. Jackson does a bit of everything, running everything from power read to a bevy of QB counters.
Considering his size at 5-foot-10, 207 pounds, Wagner doesn't foresee Arizona ever using Murray like Carolina has used Newton over the years. Beyond having a similar baseball background, his running style compares most favorably to Wilson, as he prefers only to run when he has to and primarily uses his legs to escape the pocket with the goal of finding an open receiver on extended plays.
When the Cardinals do call designed runs for Murray, they typically dial up read option plays and will roll him out of the pocket on bootlegs. Formation-wise, they run more 10 personnel than any team in the league (21 percent) with four receivers and a running back on the field, and as Wagner noted, they will spread defenses out and call draw plays to spring him loose against aggressive pass rushes.
"They might run draws in the red zone, similar to a screen, get everybody’s back turned and have him take it up the middle," Wagner explained. "You just have to be mindful of those moments where they try to look for opportunities to get him the ball whether it’s run the running back and pull two players that way. It makes you kind of slow footed, and that’s what you don’t want to have with a guy that fast.”
While Murray has been sidelined for the past two games by an ankle injury, he returned to practice this week and although Kingsbury wouldn't confirm whether or not he would start, all signs point to him playing against the Seahawks on Sunday.
Prepping to battle against Murray for the fifth time, Wagner believes discipline will be critical against the dual threat weapon, particularly when defending against misdirection and option keepers in a spread-oriented scheme designed to create spatial issues. As they have learned the hard way in the past, to keep him contained, the entire defense will have to swarm to the football when he does look to take off as a runner.
Rebounding from their first matchup against him, the Seahawks were able to do just that last November, bottling Murray up to a total of 15 yards on five carries and sacking him three times. If they can replicate that effort this weekend, while easier said than done against the Cardinals explosive spread offense, Wagner likes their chances of being able to slow him down and position themselves for a much-needed divisional win.
“It makes you have to be more disciplined, and it makes you have to be on your communication and understanding sometimes even on a read zone you can play it right, you can have it to where the read is for him to give the ball to the running back, but he feels confident in himself that he can outrun that D-lineman. A lot of that is not leaving tackling him to one person. Making sure that we all rally to him. If you watched the game that we played here last time, we did a really good job of making sure that there was a lot of people on him. I do feel like if he sees multiple people, he tends to just go down.”