Nigel Bradham still remembers the first time Russell Wilson demoralized his defense.
He can laugh about it now, but as a junior linebacker at Florida State in 2010, there was no humor involved.
The Eagles starter was on a nationally ranked Seminoles team going up against unranked North Carolina State. The Wolfpack were led by an undersized quarterback starting to make a name for himself.
The No. 16 Seminoles entered the prime-time October game at 6-1. They had a handful of defensive players, including Bradham and Vikings cornerback Xavier Rhodes, who would go on to have successful NFL careers.
The 5-2 Wolfpack? They had Wilson.
Some of the details have faded over time, but Bradham still remembers the feeling he had when the Seahawks star did what he’s become all too-well-known for. The 5-foot-11 quarterback made a back-breaking play it seems only he could have pulled off. On a third-and-22 at the start of the fourth quarter, Wilson felt pressure, rolled out to his right, and threw for a 29-yard gain.
Bradham, in coverage, might not have even seen the pass. One thing’s for sure: He heard it. Wilson whizzed it past his helmet.
“Tightrope throw, zip line,” Bradham said last week. “On the money! That set the tempo of that game, it really changed the game. It hurt our defense, because we knew we were off the field."
Wilson, now leading Seattle against the Eagles on Sunday at the Linc, got the upset, 28-24, that night. Bradham got his revenge the next season, though, when the two faced off in the Senior Bowl.
“I got a sack on him,” Bradham said. “That might have been what got my drafted.”
The linebacker might not know it, but at least one of his Eagles teammates was rooting against him in that N.C. State game.
Carson Wentz, born in Raleigh and raised a Wolfpack fan, was pulling for Wilson as a red-haired high schooler.
“When [Wilson] came through there, I rooted hard for him,” Wentz said. “I loved watching him play, as a competitor, as a guy. ... Just watching him as a player and his ability to create is something I really admire."
The Eagles spent last week preparing for one of the league’s leading MVP candidates in Wilson. The 30-year-old has thrown an NFL-best 23 touchdowns to just two interceptions, he’s orchestrated five game-winning drives, and is Pro Football Focus’ top-rated quarterback this season.
Bradham expects to be back on the field after missing more than a month with an ankle injury. His welcome-back present is the challenge of containing the dual-threat quarterback.
“You can see the mental aspect of the game for him is on a whole different level,” Bradham said. “He knows when to slide, when to get out of bounds. ... He’s so elusive and dynamic. He has the ability to stay in the pocket and beat you, and he also has the ability to beat you on the run.”
The Eagles’ defense is coming off arguably its best performance of the season, holding the New England Patriots to 17 points and keeping Tom Brady uncomfortable with a steady pass rush.
Defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz likes to lean on his line’s pass rushers to make things difficult for opposing quarterbacks. With Wilson’s ability to use space as a runner, it’s not that simple.
“All your schemes are built to — whether you’re containing him or you’re spilling him to somebody else — ... prevent scrambles,” Schwartz said. “It’s obviously a different challenge this week as opposed to last. Our previous game plan, we were trying to get the quarterback moving. I think that this is a little different story with Russell Wilson, because he is very dangerous outside.”
Dangerous indeed. When pressured, Wilson is completing 57.3 percent of his passes according to PFF. He’s thrown nine touchdowns under duress, the most in the NFL, to just one interception. He’s been pressured 160 times this season while being sacked only 17% of the time. By comparison, Wentz is completing 47.7% of his passes when the rush reaches him, and has thrown six touchdowns to three interceptions.
Wentz did learn a few things from watching Wilson’s time at N.C. State, though. It shows in the way both quarterbacks thrive on extended plays. On plays lasting longer than 2.5 seconds, Wilson and Wentz are in the Top 5 in touchdown passes thrown.
“His athleticism is something that I tried to implement in my game a little bit,” Wentz said. “But at the same time, we’re different players. He’s way quicker than I am and way faster than I am, but a lot of respect for how he can improvise.”