Wagner is the rock of Seattle's defense

NEW YORK -- Seattle Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman is the talk of the sports world. Free safety Earl Thomas is a candidate for NFL defensive player of the year.

Defensive lineman Michael Bennett, and his R-rated, Elvis-like celebration dance, is a force up front for the Seattle defense. Strong safety Kam Chancellor is a highlight-reel hitter who makes receivers wish they had taken up another profession.

They all have become stars on the No. 1 defense in the NFL, but it’s the man in the middle who makes it all work.

On Super Bowl Sunday, some casual fans will learn all about middle linebacker Bobby Wagner for the first time. He is the great unknown of Seattle's defense and the man this unit can’t live without in order to function at maximum capacity.

Wagner is overshadowed by a defense with big talkers, big dancers and big hitters, but he is the glue that holds it all together. And he's OK if some of his teammates get most of the glory.

“I think we’re all very skilled at the positions we’re playing,” Wagner said. “We don’t feel like anyone matches us. So when we play any team, we always feel like we’re going to come out victorious.”

Wagner, an Ontario, Calif., native who played college football at Utah State, is finishing his second NFL season after being picked by the Seahawks in the second round of the 2012 draft.

At the time, there was a lot of “Bobby who?” among some Seahawks fans. But that didn't last long. Wagner started 15 games last season and set the franchise record for tackles by a rookie with 140, along with three interceptions and two sacks.

With all that, he still was overshadowed by another rookie -- Carolina linebacker Luke Kuechly, a first-round draft pick who had 164 tackles last season.

Nothing new for Wagner, but the Seahawks knew they had a rock in the middle of their defense for years to come.

That rock, however, showed a little crack earlier this year.

Wagner suffered a nasty high-ankle sprain against Indianapolis on Oct. 6. It appeared the injury would keep him out for a month or more, but Wagner returned after missing two games.

It was too soon. He pushed himself to recover but didn’t play well in his first game at St. Louis as the Seahawks gave up 200 yards rushing.

“I was playing in some pain,” Wagner said. “But it wasn’t like I felt I couldn’t do the job. I wanted to be out there, and I felt I could help the team.”

There was some rumbling about what was wrong with Wagner. Nothing as it turned out, once his ankle healed.

“When Bobby came back from the injury, he was still banged up,” Seattle defensive coordinator Dan Quinn said. “There was a game there where he didn’t play as fast as we’d like him to. Then it clicked where he got back into his rhythm. That made all of the difference for us.”

Since the start of November, Wagner has had at least eight tackles in every game, including 10 or more tackles in four outings. Maybe his best game of the season came in the NFC Championship Game against the 49ers.

Sherman, in the national spotlight that night for his postgame rant, knew how well Wagner had played.

“Bobby had 15 tackles,” Sherman said. “He had a great game, like a lot of our guys. The stories would have been about them. So that’s the only thing I feel kind of regretful about.”

Wagner is as fundamentally sound a tackler as you will find. He isn’t flashy, but he does everything at a high level. He has five sacks, two interceptions and six passes defensed this season. He is also the quarterback of the defense.

“He’s someone we certainly count on to do a lot of stuff,” Quinn said, “not just from the attitude that he brings but making the calls.”

Making sure the Seahawks are in the right defense at the right moment, something that will be critical against Denver’s hurry-up offense with Peyton Manning, is Wagner’s responsibility.

“Bobby has really played well since the second half of the season,” Seattle coach Pete Carroll said. “He has just jumped on board of all of the commands of the defense and the calls and the adjustments that he has to make. He’s really playing fast. I think it’s just a natural process of how he’s grown and how this defense has grown.”

The Seahawks have a defense full of stars, but Wagner is the guy who puts them in position to shine. And he just might have a couple of shining moments himself on Sunday.