By Brady Henderson
RENTON — The defense called for K.J. Wright to drop into coverage.
Instead, the Seahawks’ first-year linebacker rushed the passer, vacating the area he was responsible for covering.
Rookie mistake? Not exactly.
“It was just natural instincts, just having a feel for the game” said Wright, whose pressure on Caleb Hanie forced the Bears quarterback to throw the ball right into the waiting arms of Red Bryant. “I could tell they were running a bootleg. Something clicked in my brain and I was able to sniff it out.”
Those instincts have helped propel Wright from a mid-round pick to a starter and one of the more pleasant surprises on a Seahawks defense that has a few of them.
Rookie linebacker K.J. Wright is fifth on the Seahawks with 54 tackles, eight of which came on Sunday against Chicago. (AP)
His role in Bryant’s interception, which he returned 20 yards for a go-ahead touchdown, wasn’t Wright’s only contribution to the Seahawks’ win. Wright blew up a screen pass earlier in the game, tackling running back Kahlil Bell for a four-yard loss. He made eight tackles in all, a team high.
“He’s a very, very instinctive football player,” coach Pete Carroll told “Brock and Salk” this week. “The game comes really easy to K.J. Everything makes sense. When you tell him something and he gets it, he’s got it for good. If he makes a mistake, it’s not happening again.
“He sees things as really good instinctive football players do while they’re starting to develop, so he’s a whole step ahead.”
The Seahawks drafted Wright in the fourth round out of Mississippi State, where he was a three-year starter for the Bulldogs. Wright thought he would spend his rookie season merely contributing on special teams and providing depth at linebacker, but that soon changed.
In training camp, Lofa Tatupu was cut in when he wouldn’t take a pay cut and David Hawthorne was slowed with a knee injury. That forced Wright to switch from outside linebacker to middle linebacker.
Carroll said that before the move, the 6-foot-4-inch Wright moved awkwardly and out of control, unsure of where he was supposed to be at times. The changed soon after Wright slid inside.
“About a week or so later, 10 days after we started, he started to understand and get comfortable and he didn’t look like the same athlete,” Carroll said. “He moved quicker and more assertively and his feet were on the ground and then he started to show a real comfort with understanding and being able to communicate. And then, boy, things just started to go from there.”
Wright started the season opener at middle linebacker in place of Hawthorne and made five tackles. Hawthorne’s return the following week moved Wright back into a backup role, but it wasn’t long until he earned more significant playing time. The team became dissatisfied with the play of Aaron Curry, who began ceding playing time at strongside linebacker to Wright following a Week 2 loss to the Steelers.
Three weeks later, the Seahawks were happy enough with the promise Wright showed to deal Curry — the former No. 4 overall pick — to the Raiders. The job has been Wright’s ever since.
Fellow linebacker Leroy Hill called Wright’s ability to grasp both positions in such a short time “unreal.” He said he hasn’t seen a rookie linebacker with Wright’s instincts since Tatupu entered the league in 2005.
“He’s a very smart player,” Hill said of Wright. “He calls out a lot of the plays, he knows a lot of the plays before they’re doing it, he studies his film and he comes to work like a pro.”
Wright believes his finest game was the Seahawks’ Thursday night win over the Eagles when he made five tackles and recorded his first career sack. He followed up that performance with eight tackles — including three for losses — and another sack the following week against the Rams.
Then, against the Bears on Sunday, his instincts enabled perhaps the biggest play of the season for the Seahawks.
“He’s learned so much football in such short time and he’s just got great savvy for the game and all,” Carroll said. “So it’s made him an exceptional rookie football player, and he’s had a great season.
“He’s all over the field, he’s making plays and he’s having a ball playing football.”