RENTON -- With up to five defensive starters possibly out for Sunday's pivotal NFC West matchup with the Los Angeles Rams, the Seattle Seahawks will need to get big efforts from players who began the season as backups or in lesser roles.
Players like Bradley McDougald and Michael Wilhoite.
McDougald has been the replacement for Kam Chancellor at strong safety over the last four games. While Wilhoite has been a starter at the strong-side linebacker spot for Seattle, he'll likely be starting in place of Bobby Wagner or K.J. Wright should either player be unable to play.
Wilhoite's role at SAM linebacker is somewhat limited due to the amount of snaps Seattle plays in nickel coverages with an extra defensive back on the field. When the Seahawks play with five defensive backs, Wilhoite is the piece that comes off the field.
Wilhoite took over for NaVorro Bowman in 2014 when he missed the entire season with the San Francisco 49ers after a severe knee injury in the NFC Championship game against Seattle in January. He then took over full-time in place of Patrick Willis in 2015 when he retired after the 2014 season.
"For the most part, I've been around for a while, played inside in San Fran the whole time so I'm comfortable there. That's my natural position, I think. With the more and more reps and more and more games I'm doing better at outside," Wilhoite said.
With neither Wagner or Wright practicing for a second straight day, it looks increasingly more likely they won't be able to play on Sunday. That would force Wilhoite into a more prominent role.
"Michael Wilhoite is an experienced football player, he doesn’t have any problem stepping into the role of calling stuff when he plays. When he steps up, he’s done a good job," head coach Pete Carroll said.
"He’s really brought the leadership and the toughness and the versatility. He’s played different spots for us already and done well, and he can really handle if he has to be the caller, he can do that. He’s done fine."
One thing that McDougald and Wilhoite agree upon is that they have to play the game their way. They're aren't Kam Chancellor or Bobby Wagner and trying to do more than they're capable of creates more issues than it solves.
I’m not those guys. I’m not Earl (Thomas). I’m not Kam and I’ve had success without being those guys," McDougald said. "So I just keep that in my back pocket and I go out there and I play my game. That’s about it. I just go out there and play my game. I don’t try to make things up. I don’t try and do anything outside of my job. I just do my job and then once you do that and once you make a couple plays doing your job, it looks good."
Added Wilhoite: "If you're trying to be them, you're going to go outside of your body and try to do things that you might not be capable of or try to do things or see something that isn't really there and then you're out of place and they make a play."
McDougald started two games in place of Thomas at free safety before replacing Chancellor at strong safety for the rest of the season. He's recorded at least eight tackles in three of his four starts since taking over the job.
"I think I am playing fine," McDougald said. "Obviously I’m not perfect. I am still growing. I’m still learning the defense but coaches have an unbelievable amount of confidence in me. I definitely have confidence in myself. I am very comfortable in the defense. I feel like I am getting better each week and that is most important."
Nevertheless, it's a big deal for Seattle to not have Wagner, Wright, Chancellor, Richard Sherman and Cliff Avril on the field for them defensively. That's a lot of talent and a lot of salary cap commitments unable to play if Wagner and Wright can't go on Sunday.
With Wright being unable to practice Thursday, he's running out of time to clear the necessary steps of the league concussion protocol required to be able to play. Wagner will likely be a game-time decision due to a strained hamstring.
Against the No. 2 scoring offense in the NFL, the Seahawks will need guys like McDougald, Wilhoite, Terence Garvin and D.J. Alexander to come through in a big way to hope of winning the division alive.
Photo Credit: SEATTLE, WA - DECEMBER 03: Linebacker Michael Wilhoite #57 of the Seattle Seahawks celebrates the Eagles touchback with Shaquill Griffin #26 with in the third quarter at CenturyLink Field on December 3, 2017 in Seattle, Washington. (Photo by Otto Greule Jr /Getty Images)