Bobby Wagner wasn’t even out of his uniform at Washington, yet he was already dialed in for Dallas.
“I can’t wait,” the Seahawks’ middle linebacker, leading tackler and primary run stopper said late Monday night beneath FedEx Field in Landover, Maryland, after the victory over Washington improved Seattle to 3-1 before Sunday’s game with run-first, run-often Dallas (4-1) at CenturyLink Field.
Wagner has 43 tackles through four games, on pace to break Terry Beeson’s Seattle record of 153 tackles set in the 1978 season. He had just gotten done throwing down Washington’s Alfred Morris and Kirk Cousins as part of his eight tackles with a sack and three tackles for loss. He was still wearing his shoulder pads and white road jersey with paint on it from Washington’s turf.
But he was already thinking of DeMarco Murray, the NFL’s leading rusher. That’s because on Sunday, Murray will be trying to match the great Jim Brown as the only players in NFL history to rush for at least 100 yards in each of his first six games in a regular season. Dallas has the second-leading rushing offense in the league at 160 yards per game — second only to Seattle.
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Wagner knows Murray’s quest to tie a record — and Dallas’ quest to become just the second visiting team to beat Seattle in the past 25 games at CenturyLink Field — are coming right at him.
“Tackling will be big,” he said. “They are committed to the run. I saw them in the St. Louis game, they were down (21-0 last month before winning 34-31) and they were still trying to run the ball.
“They are committed to the run ... and I love that. I love that.
“And I will be right there on every single play.”
He will need to be for the Seahawks to stay atop the NFC West.
Their other top run stuffer from the back of the defense, Kam Chancellor, is questionable to play because of a strained hip. The thudding strong safety crowding the line and filling running lanes with a hammer like Wagner’s is why Seattle leads the NFL in allowing only 62.3 yards rushing per game.
The Seahawks’ roster addition Saturday was another sign Chancellor may not play: Seattle signed safety Steve Terrell from its practice squad and waived seldom-used defensive end Greg Scruggs.
The last guy not named Chancellor to start at strong safety for Seattle was Atari Bigby on Oct. 2, 2011. If Chancellor can’t play for only the second time in his five seasons with the Seahawks, Jeron Johnson will make the first start of his four-year career with Terrell backing him up. That in turn, would get Dallas’ attention, both with Tony Romo passing to favorite target Jason Witten down the middle and with Murray running inside and often.
Murray — not to mention an improved defense — is why Dallas is one of the NFC’s surprise teams. After years of being overly reliant on Romo’s often-skittish throwing, the Cowboys are relying on the offensive-line talent they’ve been drafting for the past four years. Those blockers have plowed lanes for Murray to romp through to the tune of 670 yards rushing in five games. He is on pace for 2,144 yards, which would set a NFL single-season record. Eric Dickerson set the mark in 1984 with 2,105 yards.
And Dallas is giving the ball to him at a rate that is on pace to tie Larry Johnson’s league record from 2006 of 416 carries for a season. The Cowboys’ success with the run has created many third-and-short situations, and Murray has rushed for 37 first downs. Only one other player in the league has more than 20, Rashad Jennings of the New York Giants (26).
Murray has more first downs rushing than all but three of the league’s 32 teams. The Seahawks, who lead the league in yards rushing per game at 167.3, have gained 35 first downs via the run.
No, this isn’t the same Cowboys who came to Seattle in 2012 and got whipped, 27-7.
And this sure isn’t the same Cowboys that lost an NFC wild card game, 21-20, in Seattle at the end of the 2006 season. That unforgettable January night Romo botched a hold on a short field goal attempt that would have given Dallas a 23-21 lead with a little more than a minute to play.
That’s not the memory of Seattle that Romo cherishes. This is: the start of the 2006 exhibition season, when Dallas played at Seattle in August. Romo, then coming off three years as a backup out of Eastern Illinois, outshined veteran Drew Bledsoe that night, and Cowboys owner Jerry Jones mentioned in the locker room afterward how his team may have found its quarterback of the future.
That future came at halftime of Dallas’ sixth game that season, when coach Bill Parcells benched Bledsoe and inserted Romo. He’s been the Cowboys’ starter in the eight years since.
“It’s a great memory. I did not know anyone (who remembers that) still worked there,” Romo said. “Yeah, that was a big game. I really can’t imagine a game being bigger for me at that time because of how much it meant. It was the first time Coach Parcells ever gave me a chance — and he didn’t give me very many — to kind of show what you can do or how you were going to be as a player.
“It’s always been a tough environment (in Seattle), and I came out and played well and kind of showed the coaches they may have had somebody that they could trust and put in. That was a great day.”
Great days are back in Dallas. Romo is benefiting from Murray’s running game and that improved offensive line, completing 69.2 percent of his throws with nine touchdowns and five interceptions. His career completion rate entering this season was 64.8.
Ah, what a different a ground game makes.
“To me, the biggest difference is really the commitment to stay with the run,” Seahawks defensive coordinator Dan Quinn said. “Even when they had some games where they were down and had to come from behind to win it, they stayed consistent in the run game.”
Then again, as Quinn said: “Really, it’s probably easier to stay committed to it as successfully as they are running the ball.”
Seahawks safety Earl Thomas noticed in his film study of Dallas that Romo kept handing the ball to Murray instead of winging it around the Edward Jones Dome in St. Louis last month, even though the Cowboys trailed 21-0 in the first half. Murray finished with 100 yards on 24 carries as Dallas rallied to win, 34-31.
Thomas has noticed Murray for years, having played for the University of Texas in 2008 and ’09 while Murray was at Big 12- and border-rival Oklahoma.
At the 2008 Red River Rivalry at the Cotton Bowl in Dallas, Thomas had two interceptions while he and the Texas defense held Murray to a mere six yards on seven carries. No. 5 Texas beat top-ranked OU, 45-35.
In 2009, with Thomas well on his way to being a consensus All-American and then Seattle’s top draft choice the following spring, he had another interception while he and Texas held Murray to minus-3 yards on five carries. Texas and Thomas beat Oklahoma and Murray again that day, 16-13.
“I think he’s getting back to himself,” Thomas said of Murray. “When he was at OU he was very explosive. Anytime he got the ball, he could go the distance. He’s starting to get his swagger back.
“He and I battled. We were going at it — and I always won.”
Then Thomas added wryly about the Sunday collision at CenturyLink: “So let’s keep it that way.”