Marquise Blair and his Seahawks are pleased with rookie safety’s aggressive debut in preseason opener
Sure, Paxton Lynch out-played Geno Smith in the competition for Russell Wilson’s backup-quarterback job.
Anyone who saw, heard about—or saw somebody who heard about—the Seahawks’ preseason opener knows that.
But let’s face it: if it matters how well Lynch or Smith is playing when the games get real beginning next month, it means Wilson is hurt and missing the first games of his career. And that would mean the Seahawks’ season will be more meaningless than the Mariners’.
The bigger takeaway with more potential, immediate and important effect on the Seahawks’ 2019 season happened on the opposite end of the field from quarterback.
Rookie safety Marquise Blair showed he may be up to all Seattle coaches may ask of the second-round draft choice in his debut year.
And if Thursday night’s first run against the Denver Broncos is any indication, they are going to be asking a lot of the guy Seahawks general manager John Schneider called “a silent assassin” for his hitting at Utah the night Seattle drafted him in April.
The safety the Seahawks selected in earlier in the second round than spring and summer rookie star DK Metcalf because of his hard hitting in college at Utah got a long first look. He entered for three consecutive plays on the first drive of the preseason opener, after veteran Shalom Luani started at strong safety.
Lano Hill, Seattle’s 2017 draft choice, did not play. He is returning from a cracked hip that ended his 2018 season early.
If Blair, Hill or Luani emerge as a sure tackler and cover man this month, it would likely move Bradley McDougald to free safety to replace departed All-Pro Earl Thomas this season. Carroll has said McDougald, who rested Thursday night along with Wilson and many other veteran starters, is Seattle’s best coverage defensive back. The coach who grew up playing and coaching defensive backs may ultimately choose McDougald over Tedric Thompson as the center fielder deep in the middle of the field at free safety, to cover more ground and more varied routes and receivers as the last defender.
That leaves strong safety up for grabs.
The veteran Luani, a special-teams mainstay last season, feels like a place-holder right now. Hill may be back for the second preseason game, Aug. 18 at Minnesota.
Blair, called “nasty” in college by his defensive coordinator at Utah, seized the first claim on the job Thursday night.
Luani’s start ended up being a token appearance. Blair played the bulk of the game. The Seahawks at times interchanged Blair and veteran DeShawn Shead at free and strong safety in the first and second quarters. They switched almost by down, depending on distance and formation.
Shead, the eight-year veteran of all spots in Seattle’s secondary who is beginning his second stint with the Seahawks, was Blair’s traffic cop. He positioned the rookie immediately before snaps, sometimes up closer to the line and other times dropping him off deeper into the secondary depending on the array of opposing receivers.
“Yeah, some plays he would go down to strong. Some plays I would. Some plays I would play free,” Blair said.
“I’m comfortable,” he added, shrugging. “I did it at Utah.”
Indeed, Carroll, Schneider and the scout who assessed him most for the Seahawks, Tyler Ramsey, remarked in April how Blair was versatile in Utah’s defense.
Yet Carroll said he noticed of Blair in his multiple roles in his debut: “He was scrambling a little bit.”
But scrambling didn’t mean lost. It was noticeable how Seahawks coaches gave Blair so much in his first game. It strong suggests they have multiple plans to use him around the field in their defense this season, to maximize his speed and hitting.
Blair had two sure tackles in the first half. The first was in the open field immediately after a catch in the flat. The second was behind the line of scrimmage on a safety blitz against an inside run by the Broncos.
That’s why Seattle drafted him in the second round.
Seattle defensive coordinator Ken Norton Jr. was creative with Blair in his first game, to keep him playing fast and in open fields.
Norton blitzed Blair and his fellow safeties up the middle at least four times. The last time, in the fourth quarter, Akeem King hit Lock’s arm as he tried to throw. Veteran cornerback Jamar Taylor continued his strong training camp with an interception off King’s hit.
Seattle needs creativity and options for pass rushing beyond its iffy and currently depleted front four this season. Blitzing from the back as effectively as the Seahawks did Thursday sure would help.
“I thought Kenny called a really nice game for the opener, to give our guys a chance,” Carroll said. “We want to see our guys and see who the blitzers are. We’re trying to figure that out.
“So, he gave them a lot of shots. And it was good.”
Blitzing helps keep Blair running and away from bigger opponents who can block or physically control him. The 6-foot-1 safety is below 200 pounds, he’s listed at 196. He is the lightest of the nine safeties on the Seahawks’ preseason roster. He’s 20 pounds lighter than Hill.
Blair is 36 pounds lighter than Kam Chancellor, the standard bearer for all Seahawks strong safeties and the last one Seattle had renowned for his vicious hitting. Chancellor had the job and was perhaps the best in the league at it until a neck injury during the 2017 season forced him to retire.
Blair relies on his speed, instincts and decisiveness to make his hits and tackles.
At times Thursday, he was over-reliant on his speed. He had the usual mishaps for rookies in their first NFL game: he was too amped up.
On one play in the second quarter, Blair raced in free on the quarterback, over eager on what wasn’t one of Norton’s called blitzes. The Broncos noted that, then took advantage of Blair’s aggressiveness at the line of scrimmage later in the period to set up their second field goal. Before a snap, Shead moved his rookie safety partner up to the line of scrimmage opposite Broncos slot wide receiver Nick Williams. Williams went in motion toward the quarterback at the snap. Blair followed Williams. The receiver then crashed down on defensive end Rasheem Green as if he was pass blocking.
Blair got fooled by Williams’ ruse. The rookie, thinking he was free of pass-coverage responsibility with Williams apparently blocking, again raced in free on Denver rookie quarterback Drew Lock. Lock waited for Williams to break off the would-be block and run into the flat—into the space the freelancing Blair should have been. Williams caught Lock’s simple flick of a pass over Blair’s head and ran 24 yards to set up Brandon McManus’ second field goal of the half. It was Denver’s longest pass play of the half.
“Yeah, that was on me. That one was on me,” Blair said. “I went down too fast, I felt like. I just felt I was in the wrong spot.”
Yet it wasn’t as though Blair was exactly devastated by being too aggressive there.
“Nah,” he said. “It’s just football. I just play. If I mess up, I mess up. Just move on to the next play.”
Not surprisingly, Carroll had coaching points all over for the rookie.
“He makes one play coming off the edge that it was not a blitz, but he took off and made a big hit in the backfield. And then he tried it again, and that’s when they dumped the ball in the flat,” Carroll said. “He has a lot to catch up on.
“But, he showed you that he’s a hitter, he’s aggressive and tough. We can work with that now.
“It was exciting to see the plays that he made.”
Late in the game Blair, who got ejected from three Pac-12 games in two years in college, got called for a 15-yard unnecessary-roughness foul because he separated Denver’s Williams from an arriving pass with a hard shoulder hit. Williams was a defenseless receiver, yes, but it’s hard to see what Blair was to do on the play; let him catch it?
“I guess just move, move lower. I’ve been working on it a lot in practice, though. I mean...”
Blair then shrugged.
“I felt good. I didn’t throw no helmet to helmet,” he said. “I’ve been on working on it since I left Utah. I’ve been working on moving my shoulder.
“I mean, it’s going full speed out there, you know what I’m sayin’?
“So it’s whatever they (the officials) see.”
Carroll had a coaching point for Blair on that play, too.
“It will be interesting to see (from the game film). The league did take a look at the hit and they ruled that it wasn’t the kind that would get him kicked out of the game or whatever,” Carroll said, referring to a game stoppage and replay review to check if Blair should have been ejected.
“We were very close to doing that exactly right. ... That’s a left shoulder hit for him coming in (from right to left), and he chose to hit with his right shoulder (the shoulder further from the receiver), and so it places his helmet in position in question. And the officials thought, ‘Well, when we look at it again...’
“But that was a right-shoulder hit, and that’s pretty darn good football.”
Carroll’s point to Blair is: Hit with the left shoulder, nearer to the receiver as Blair runs to him from right to left. Had he done that, Blair’s head would not have crossed in front of Williams’ body.
“But to make it so that they can’t the penalty on it, you hit with your left shoulder so your helmet is not in front of the receiver,” Carroll said. “We didn’t quite get that done right, but it still was an excellent effort to do what we’re trying and get the head out of our game.
“So, we’ll get better and he’ll learn, and we’ll grow from that.”
Blair got a late start to training camp. A hamstring injury from June’s minicamp lingered into late July. He began camp on the physically-unable-to-perform list. He didn’t resume fully practicing until early last week. Thursday night was the first extended look Seahawks coaches got of him, of how—and what—Blair is capable is playing in the middle of their defense.
“It’s been good,” Blair said. “I fell like our room, our DB room, there are some good vets. They just want you to learn, to compete with everybody. That’s all.
“I liked it. It was exciting. I like football. I like this team. I like competing. So I was just going out there, competing. Same thing.”
Carroll said this isn’t the last time Blair is going to have an impact in Seattle’s changed defense this year. Yes, as a rookie.
“He’ll learn,” Carroll said.
“They’re going to have to look out for him. He’s a heck of a player.”