Wearing only a towel and mock anger, Sheldon Richardson sat his hulking frame on a folding chair and faced into his locker. He leaned forward to read the statistical summary from the game he had just played.
And he bellowed.
“Bobby’s taking all my stats!” the Seahawks’ often-dynamic defensive tackle said of Bobby Wagner, his All-Pro linebacker and teammate who continued to get the most tackles on the team in its 24-13 win at San Francisco last weekend.
“The only reason MY stats aren’t higher is because of him.”
Richardson was joking. Mostly. The 2014 Pro Bowl defensive lineman while with the Jets wanted credit for more than his six official tackles and two quarterback hits last weekend.
But Wagner’s taking everybody’s stats. His wondrous, rolling interception against the 49ers to set up the game’s first score was his latest of a season worth of feats that have him in consideration to be the NFL’s defensive player of the year.
“Pretty damn good season,” Richardson said of Wagner.
He called Wagner’s interception at San Francisco “easily a top-five interception--of all time. OF ALL TIME. ... Pretty cool. Pretty dope.”
Richardson, by nature of his relatively understated, far less glamorous position, isn’t going to win NFL defensive player of the year. But he’s won over his new Seahawks since his trade from the New York Jets in September. Official statistics don’t show what his teammates and coaches know entering Sunday night’s huge test against the 10-1 Philadelphia Eagles: Richardson’s often dominating the line of scrimmage and creating many of the plays Wagner’s been making this season.
Against San Francisco, Richardson rag-dolled the 49ers’ interior three offensive linemen and consistently blew up plays in the backfield. He especially dominated the first half, when San Francisco tried to establish Carlos Hyde’s runs to help rookie quarterback C.J. Beathard. Hyde and Beathard kept running into Richardson, or into the blockers Richardson had just violently shoved into the running back and quarterback.
Richardson set his tone with a hit on Beathard on the San Francisco’s second play. That forced a third and 11. In the second quarter, he smacked Beathard as he rushed a forced throw outside to Hyde, who wasn’t open. Wagner immediately nailed Hyde for a 7-yard loss.
Richardson was the primary reason San Francisco had a third and 11, second and 21, third and 20, third and 15. And that was just in the first half.
“He is a forceful player. He is in the backfield,” Seahawks coach Pete Carroll said. “He wins a lot in his one-on-ones in the running game. If you watch him play in the run game, he will disengage really well to make tackles. He has done that consistently.
“He is a really good fundamental, technique guy, and it works out for him in the run game as well as in his pass rushes. But he has been more effective, I think forcing issues, forcing the pocket, forcing pressure and getting in the way, and so he has really made it available for other guys to make their plays, too.”
In September, his Seattle debut at Green Bay wowed his coaches and teammates into saying Richardson was already “a difference maker.” Yet he said he wanted to be more stout against the run. The first San Francisco game, in week two, showed his worth. Hyde went nowhere for much of the game with Richardson in there. When Richardson got his first series off to rest that day, Hyde ripped off a 61-yard run.
The second San Francisco game last weekend showed even Pro Bowl players can make progress within a season. Or, within a system.
“For me, personally, I really feel like I’ve caught my rhythm with the defense,” Richardson said.
“Finally. It took a while.”
It’s been an adjustment for him to go from New York’s 3-4 defense to Seattle’s 4-3. The Jets had him sometimes a nose tackle, sometimes an end and sometimes even in pass coverage. The Seahawks have asked him to be a “three-technique” tackle, in the “three” hole between the opposing guard and tackle, to occupy blockers and plug running lanes. That is a large--about 300-pound--reason why Wagner is third in the NFL in tackles; he’s often not getting blocked because Richardson won’t let blockers past him to Wagner. In passing situations, Richardson has often stayed on the field as a rush companion inside with Pro Bowl end Michael Bennett--though injuries including the season-ending one to Pro Bowl pass rusher Cliff Avril have kept Bennett outside at end instead of inside with Richardson more than planned on passing downs.
“Really, it was switching from a 3-4 to a 4-3, certain movements and reads,” Richardson said. “Things that cross my face on certain plays, things of that nature. There’s just a lot that goes into it. Little things that when guys get big runs they’ll be like, ‘What happened?’ It’s just a step this way or a step that way. Things of that nature.”
Richardson’s debut season with the Seahawks has been all they’d hoped, and perhaps more. Seattle is relying on its front four defensive linemen perhaps more than at any other time in the Carroll era.
These are the first games Seattle’s played since 2010 without Richard Sherman and Kam Chancellor in their “Legion of Boom” secondary that has only Earl Thomas remaining in it. Sherman and Chancellor are also out for the year. The Seahawks in the first two games without them have blitzed far less while dropping Wagner and a total of seven defenders into coverage far more to help the fill-in secondary. The onus has been on the four defensive linemen to get pressure on quarterbacks more by themselves.
The front four sacked Matt Ryan once and hit him six times in the home loss to Atlanta two games ago. Last weekend they battered Beathard with three sacks and 11 of 13 hits; Wagner had the other two on rare blitzes. The last hit on the QBB with 1:07 left in the game, by Bennett, knocked Beathard from the game and out of his starting job. Heralded acquisition Jimmy Garoppolo made his San Francisco debut in the final 67 seconds of the Seahawks game and threw a touchdown pass. Garoppolo will make his first 49ers start this weekend.
Carroll thinks Richardson has a ton to do with the defensive line’s surge even without Avril, who was to have neck surgery Tuesday.
“Yeah, I think he is on it now,” Carroll said of Richardson. “We are very comfortable with him and the things we are asking of him. And he is playing fast and playing strong and he is tough. He is really tough.
“He is really good.”
Good enough to keep beyond this season?
Richardson has said he’s not thinking about his future beyond this season in Seattle. All of his $8,069,000 salary is guaranteed for 2017. His contract expires after this season. By spring he could become a free agent starting down a potentially huge payday if his season continues the way it’s been going through 11 games.
“Let the Lord take me on that one,” he said of his contract future when he arrived in Seattle.
In the meantime, the Seahawks feel what they’ve been getting from Richardson has been divine.