Discipline Key as LB Bobby Wagner, Seahawks Prepare to Defend Ravens QB Lamar Jackson

Linebacker Bobby Wagner wraps up quarterback Kyler Murray during the Seahawks Week 4 win over the Cardinals.Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports
Corbin Smith

Now in his eighth season in the NFL, All-Pro linebacker Bobby Wagner has seen everything playing against talented quarterbacks of varying skill sets.

Well, almost everything. On Sunday, Wagner and the Seahawks will face arguably their toughest test yet game planning for explosive play-making quarterback Lamar Jackson and the Ravens high-powered offense.

"He just knows how to get out of the pocket." Wagner said of Jackson. "He just knows how to make people miss. There are plays where you think somebody’s got him, he stops on a dime, does a spin move or something, and it’s just amazing to watch."

In his second season out of Louisville, Jackson has made tremendous progress as a passer orchestrating coordinator Greg Roman’s offense. After completing just 58 percent of his passes as a rookie, he’s improved his completion rate to above 65 percent and already has nearly doubled his passing touchdown total from 2018.

But what still makes Jackson such a difficult player to prepare for is his rare athletic traits and running ability for the quarterback position. He ran a 4.34-second 40-yard dash at his pro day prior to the 2018 NFL Draft and won the Heisman Trophy in 2016 after rushing for over 1,500 yards and scoring 21 rushing touchdowns.

“He’s as good as we’ve ever seen. He’s as fast and as allusive as we’ve seen.” coach Pete Carroll said on Monday, comparing preparing him to Panthers quarterback Cam Newton. “They seem even more apt than with Cam to just let him go and run and play football, just like you see the guys playing in college. He’s tough, physical, explosive, and creative. He’s throwing the ball well, too. It’s a real nightmare. Very difficult.”

While coaches have a tendency to delve into hyperbole at times when discussing opponents, it’s hard to argue with Carroll’s assessment, as Jackson has been putting up statistics never before seen by a quarterback at the NFL level.

Already with 460 rushing yards through six games, Jackson is on pace to join Michael Vick as only the second quarterback ever to surpass 1,000 rushing yards in a season. He’s already passed for over 1,500 yards as well, and if he maintains that pace, he’ll be the first quarterback in NFL history to pass for 4,000 yards and rush for 1,000.

Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson, who knows a thing or two about giving defenses fits as a passer and a runner, has been very impressed by Jackson dating back to his time staring for the Cardinals at the college level and doesn’t view his success as a surprise.

“He’s just a tremendous athlete, tremendous quarterback.” Wilson said on Thursday. “Can throw it. Can run it. He’s fast as lightning, quick as can be. He’s tough. He’s a great football player, one of the best in the league right now.”

When it comes to defending against a dangerous quarterback like Jackson who can torch defenses with both his arm and his legs, Carroll believes discipline matters above everything else. Maintaining gap integrity and sealing the edge will be critical to preventing him and running back Mark Ingram from doing damage as runners.

“To play the running game and defense, it’s always discipline first. You think it’s just being hard, tough, and physical. We like that too, but that’s just part of it. You’ve got to do things right. This offense, more than any offense that we’ll face, will demand that we have to do right.”

For most of the season thus far, the Seahawks have been steady defending the run. However, the Browns rushed for 157 yards last Sunday and running back Nick Chubb took advantage of what Carroll deemed a “fundamental gap error” to break loose for a 52-yard run.

Those types of mistakes cannot happen against Jackson and the Ravens, who lead the league in rushing yardage per game (205) by a large margin and rank first in the NFL for total yardage.

“They tax you to the maximum.” Carroll stated. “It’s all about being really tuned in and being really focused. Every single play you have to do right, or the ball will break. It’s a great challenge. It’s exciting for us to try to figure it out and see if we can do it.”

Seattle will have to deal with plenty of variance in the run game against Baltimore’s well-oiled offensive machine orchestrated by Jackson. Much as Roman did while serving as offensive coordinator for San Francisco with Colin Kaepernick, he’s mixed in read-option runs, run-pass options (RPOs), and designed quarterback counters to keep opposing defenses on their heels.

Wagner, who he called a “different animal” compared to other quarterbacks he’s faced, shared Carroll’s viewpoint on discipline being essential for the Seahawks and emphasized the importance of mental preparation and watching film this week.

“They have so many different styles of runs,” Wagner commented. “They pull to left and run to the right, they do pullers and throw the ball, they do so many different styles of play, so you’ve just got to really be on the film study. When we run certain fronts, we have to really be on our keys because it’s a really important week for us to be on our keys.”

Wagner hasn’t played against Jackson before, but he does have prior experience defending mobile quarterbacks such as Kaepernick, Robert Griffin III, and most recently Murray. Aside from playing assignment-sound defense reading keys and maintaining gap integrity, getting hits on Jackson early and often will be important for the Seahawks.

That’ll be easier said than done against Jackson, who like Wilson has already earned a reputation for his ability to magically evade pressure and make defenses pay on broken plays. But for Seattle to be successful on Sunday, rattling the young signal caller may be the best chance to slow down Baltimore’s high-octane attack.

“There’s been a lot of spectacular runners and I think you just have to find a way to hit them and that’s what we’re going to try to do.”