RENTON, WA - Now in his 10th season with the Seahawks, All-Pro linebacker Bobby Wagner has seen just about everything an NFL offense can throw at him. Playing in at least one game against every other franchise in the league, he's been exposed to every offensive system and every blocking scheme at some point.
Exhibiting rare instincts and playmaking ability at his position over the past decade, Wagner excels at sniffing out plays before the snap even occurs. Now 31 years old, he has shown no signs of decline, as he registered a career-high and franchise record 20 tackles in last week's 33-30 loss to the Titans. He's currently on pace for - gulp - 280 combined tackles in 2021.
But even with this wealth of experience and immense physical talent, as to be expected from an elite player of his caliber, Wagner still takes his pre-game preparation as seriously as he did when he first broke into the league in 2012. Before he and his teammates return to the practice field on Wednesday, while the number of hours spent doing so varies by week based on a number of factors, he dissects and scours through film of the upcoming opponent.
“I think it depends on how many times I’ve played the team. It depends on where it’s at in the season," Wagner told reporters on Wednesday. "Is it early in the season where they have a new coordinator and maybe I’m watching some of the stuff the coordinator did with his previous team before he got there?"
Each individual player has his own preferences for how to approach watching film. For Wagner, he likes to start the process by looking at formations and personnel groupings the opponent uses and how frequently they use them. For example, prior to Week 2, he likely noticed offensive coordinator Todd Downing deployed 11 personnel with three receivers and one running back for the vast majority of the Titans' opener against the Cardinals and broke down which formations were used most frequently from that grouping.
From there, Wagner analyzes their playmakers, where they tend to line up, and begins visualizing how the coordinator gets the ball into their hands.
"I like to look at who their playmakers are, start playing the game in my head," Wagner explained. "If I was an offensive coordinator and I had these amazing weapons, how do I get them open? I try to think about the game from that perspective."
When gearing up for an opponent or coordinator he doesn't know as well, the entire process can be a taxing one for Wagner. This week, however, that shouldn't be as big of a problem with the Seahawks set to face the Vikings, who have basically been an unofficial fifth member of the NFC West over the years.
Since Wagner's rookie year, Seattle and Minnesota have played seven times, including a wild card matchup in January 2016. The two teams have played one another each of the past three years, with the Seahawks getting the upper hand in each contest.
Given all those prior matchups, Wagner knows all too well the dynamic weapons the Vikings have at quarterback Kirk Cousins' disposal. In the backfield, explosive running back Dalvin Cook finished second in the NFL in rushing behind Derrick Henry in 2020 and enjoyed a strong outing against the Seahawks last October before exiting with an injury.
“They run a very similar scheme to what the Titans did," Wagner said of Minnesota's run game headlined by Cook. "He’s obviously more quick, still hits the holes. They give him the ball a lot. He’s very fast, so if you’re not in your gap or gap sound, it’s kind of different. Derrick Henry, he might run through or might run you over, but if you blink, he might be through that hole. We have to be very gap sound. We have to know when they’re going to give him the ball and understand that he’s the guy that gets everything going."
Away from Cook, even after trading Stefon Diggs to Buffalo prior to the 2020 season, Cousins has one of the better trios of receivers in the NFC, starting with veteran Adam Thielen. The eighth-year pro already has caught three touchdowns and has been a thorn in Seattle's side in the past, including scoring two touchdowns in last year's matchup. Rising star Justin Jefferson and second-year wideout K.J. Osborn each have at least 11 receptions and 136 receiving yards apiece thus far, providing excellent complementary weapons in the passing game.
“They’re pretty dynamic. They’re kind of the same dynamic to be honest," Wagner said when asked to compare the current group of receivers to when Diggs was on the team. "I always had a lot of respect for Stefon Diggs, so you kind of remove him from the situation and add a younger guy like that, it’s kind of the same thing. They’re both amazing receivers. They’re going to find a way to give him the ball. In my mind, I just kind of substituted those two.”
While the Vikings have a new offensive coordinator in Klint Kubiak, Wagner doesn't see any significant differences in what they are doing schematically on offense and how they are getting the balls to playmakers such as Cook, Thielen, and Jefferson. This shouldn't come as much of a surprise, as Kubiak replaced his father Gary Kubiak and although he's aiming to leave his own imprint, there's plenty of carryover between their two respective systems.
If Kubiak operates at all like his father, Wagner anticipates he will have a play or two not on film installed specifically for this week to capitalize on the weaknesses in the coverages Seattle tends to play.
"I think they’re the same, but what I think they’re really good at is attacking coverages weaknesses," Wagner elaborated. "Whenever they figure out what coverages you’re in, I think they put a play in specifically for you that week to try to attack the weaknesses in whatever defense, because every defense has a weakness. They do a really good job of hiding similar things. They have a bunch of personnels, but if you look at it, it’s pretty much the same formations, just different people at different spots. As you’re watching the film, you’re trying to figure out why this guy is here and see if you can make a play or be faster.”
What's the secret to being prepared for an opponent such as the Vikings conducting game planning of their own? Wagner believes the key is self-scouting, looking back at how he played individually as well as how the defense performed as a whole in the previous game.
Understanding the NFL is a "copycat league," Wagner may, as an example, expect the Vikings to scheme up crossing routes for Thielen, Jefferson, and Osborn that the Seahawks struggled to stop in the first half last week. After being carved up by Julio Jones for over 100 yards in the first two quarters, they made adjustments playing deeper zones to take those throws away, which consequently opened up easy dump off passes for Ryan Tannehill.
"I know if they don’t have a play that we did bad on, they’re going to find a way to put that play into the first 15. A lot of it starts with self-scouting, seeing what we did good and what we did bad. Then I check out who the playmakers are, how they get them the ball, then I start thinking about scheme and figuring out how they like to attack similar defenses to ours.”
Aiming to get back in the win column playing in a hostile road environment, the Seahawks will need to be ready for Kubiak to dial up a surprise or two they haven't seen on film. And as Wagner noted, the call will likely come early in the script and the result could dictate play calling for both teams as the chess match unfolds.
As is the case in most NFL games, especially between two teams who know each other extremely well, the better prepared team that can execute the right adjustments in-game will hold a significant edge at U.S. Bank Stadium. While he can't speak for all of his teammates, it's all but guaranteed No. 54 will be ready for whatever Minnesota tries to do offensively.