Marquise Blair is a starting Seattle Seahawks safety. That sentence carries less weight than it would have in the "Legion of Boom" era. Yet Blair, initially thrust into the first string due to injury, is no Steven Terrell-style fill-in. Nor is Blair an anti-playmaker like the previous free safety incumbent Tedric Thompson.
Instead, in just two games, the 2019 second round pick out of Utah has shown himself to be the ideal NFL safety.
“He certainly is a ball player,” said Pete Carroll in his Monday presser.
Blair’s play is full of versatility. You can match him up with tight ends. You can place him in the box. You can give him intermediate zones. You can ask him to cover deep.
Bradley McDougald, or perhaps Quandre Diggs eventually, will enjoy the perfect playing alongside him. Packages will be created to get the three safeties on the field together, such as big nickel and maybe even dime. What’s certain is this: Blair should be playing all of the defensive snaps.
Even in the glorious days of Earl Thomas and Kam Chancellor, there was an interchangeability between the pair. It’s oft-overlooked. Pete Carroll’s defensive playbooks almost have the safeties playing left and right, starting in a two-high shell that rotates one of them down. Indeed, this season we have seen far more two-high looks that become Cover 3 post-snap. Seattle is picking the matchups for their safeties in each game and on each snap.
The most exciting aspect about Blair’s early career in Seahawks blue is the visible technical and cerebral development in his performances. Rookie mistakes from Blair rarely happen more than once. Rather, we see him adjusting, adapting, and executing exactly how the Seahawks want him to.
When playing as the down safety, the most common role Blair has been given is that of the buzz defender. This assigns him the curl-flat zone, one of the four underneath zones in Seattle’s three-deep, four-under Cover 3. It asks Blair to buzz to the flat in certain instances, but generally drop to a landmark eight-to-10 yards back, to and through the numbers.
Various indicators change this spot-drop, landmark zone coverage into more of a zone-matching situation. Against the quick passing game, the depth is lost and the buzz defender tries to take away quick concepts like slant-flat by getting in the slant throwing window and then buzzing to the flat. Facing wheel routes, the buzz defender is often tasked with staying over the top of the pattern to help out the deep third cornerback in behind. Blair has done all of this.
Blair was critical of his own Buzz defender play in the locker room after a victory over the Falcons when describing his forced fumble.
“I’d been messing up on buzz the whole game, so I was just wanting to buzz out and I was there, they threw the ball.”
Though he did bite on the backside of boot play-action, a mistake he made in the preseason against the Broncos, overall he read stuff well and made plays—including that forced fumble.
“Everyday in practice, we just go for the ball;" Blaiir said describing the fumble. "So just go for the ball, try and make plays."
The safety clearly recognizes what he needs to do better too. Asked on the issues with his Buzz play, he immediately knew the solution. Pretty much all of the mistakes he has made in underneath coverage have come from his eyes being overly hungry for plays.
“Just my eyes, I’m looking at the quarterback too much, I need to look at receivers more,” he revealed.
Where the scheme allows Blair to be even more aggressive as an underneath zone defender is when he is asked to be a “hot-to-2” player. This involves dropping to a slightly tighter landmark, near the hashes, and then matching the receiver threatening the area way more aggressively. It’s an assignment reserved for zone blitzes when the Seahawks send five or more defenders after the quarterback.
There is the occasional misdiagnosis from Blair in these instances, but in general it is ideal for his playmaking instincts. He removes routes, bullets downhill for tackles for loss, and makes so many plays. Occasionally, he misses the tackle, or is too cautious – an issue Carroll highlighted with the hot zones in general.
“We need to cover tighter when we’re pressuring, we need to take our chances in that regard,” he told 710 ESPN Seattle.
Seattle will man one of their safeties up in one-on-one coverage when they call their Cover 1 pass defense that places Bobby Wagner as a rat. Blair plays very physically, avoiding getting out-muscled, and has flashed the press technique Seattle would want from him.
A large reason for Blair not starting from Week 1 was his lack of experience in the scheme, with the rookie missing playing time in preseason training camp with injuries. When asked last Wednesday what he had learnt most in the NFL, Blair’s answer confirmed the schematic learning has been his biggest challenge.
"Just learning the system, just coming in and learning the system. Just learning a new scheme.”
Two apparent coverage busts have happened with Blair on the field. The first, against the Ravens, seemed to be something the offense was aiming for. They motioned into a two-by-two formation that would, with Seattle in base defense, typically ask the buzz defender – the down safety – to match a seam route by the No. 2 receiver to his side. This matching is called “Soft Sky," detailed by yours truly here.
At deep safety, Tedric Thompson clearly expected Blair to match the seam, with him cheating to the other No. 2 receiver in the mandated 60/40 split. Instead, Blair buzzed out to the hook-curl and it was left to K.J. Wright to handle the seam. This could have been a game-planned thing with Blair’s inexperience, yet that feels unlikely given the Seahawks never ask their linebackers to match a seam route in base defense. Either way, Blair seemed to fix this issue next time around after the let off.
The Falcons’ two-point conversion was a Red 2 bust which appeared to be more on Thompson. Yet it was another miscommunication that happened presumably due to how new Blair is in the system. He busted Red 2 against the Vikings in the preseason. Was this a repeat? Later in the Falcons game, he showed he could play it just fine. Again, he seems to be learning from his mistakes quickly.
“Remember he had trouble in the offseason, you know we didn’t get him out there, and then he had trouble in camp keeping him out there as well,” Carroll reminded reporters in his Wednesday press conference. “And so he just missed too much time to expect him to really be any further ahead than he is, the kid just couldn’t get out there.”
“As a rookie you’re gonna have your growing pains, you’re gonna have things that happen. But at this point in his career, things have to happen and then you learn from them,” defensive coordinator Ken Norton Jr. said in his evaluation of Blair's play on Wednesday. “He’s a type of guy, at this point everything’s the first time. So he’s gonna be learning a lot every time something happens.”
Encouragingly, Blair adjusts his aggression as a deep defender accordingly. He takes less play making risks, staying over the top and breaking on the ball. We’ve seen less of him deep, but what we have seen shows that he can make plays back there. There was the big hit on Ridley from the deep half, which we’ll get to later, but his closing speed and instincts enable him to cover well overall on the back end.
Playing as the down safety, something the strong safety is more regularly tasked with, Seattle will assign the position a run fit. In the outside rotations of Cover 3 Sky, this frequently requires the safety to be the turn back or “TAN” player versus the run. Essentially, on outside runs to, the player must take on lead blockers and stay outside of the play, forcing it back inside to the help. They turnback any block they encounter. It was fair to question Blair’s ability to do this, given he weighs only 195 pounds.
Against the Ravens, Blair was pretty much tasked with being a turn back player only.
The game plan at Atlanta put more trust in the rookie. Once more, he flashed real ability as the “TAN” player. He did miss a tricky turn back tackle versus a toss run, which resulted in a touchdown. Lots of things went wrong here -- Carroll bemoaned on 710 ESPN Seattle that the Falcons “knocked us of the ball” and “couple of guys got reached.” – it was not just Blair. Overall, he is holding up really well as a “TAN” player, using a blend of guile, quickness, and calculated violence to make the plays.
Fitting the run in the box on the backside of runs is a challenge the down safety will often face. Seattle tends to have the down safety fitting the weakside of the front’s strength, meaning they are a “run-and-chase” player more than a turn back player.
In the Seahawks’ run fit system, this means that the player is left looking for the next available gap. Blair’s hustle and sideline-to-sideline speed make him perfectly capable of doing this. The multi-faceted Ravens run game illustrated this, with Blair scraping until he found an available gap to fit.
Tackling ball carriers, Blair has clearly embraced Seattle’s system for bringing down opponents. It’s so apparent that the technique Blair uses is almost overly focused on tracking the near-hip, swooping with the near foot and then striking with the near-shoulder.
“If you watch him, he’s really working at the tackling technique and trying to shoulder tackle.” Carroll commented on Monday in his 710 ESPN Seattle radio segment.
Blair has adjusted his tackling for different types of hits too, factoring context into his decision. Meeting players in the hole from deep safety or making an important tackle in the box, Blair will go for a more secure wrap that allows others to join the party and the defense to prevent disaster.
Blair does occasionally miss when attempting to come downhill at speed and go eyes-through-the thighs on big or slippery targets. Either Blair’s aiming points dip too low, he opts for head across the body, or he doesn’t get close enough to the target. Still, it’s a safe bet he will improve in these areas.
“He missed a couple of tackles going for stuff which we’ll work to clean up and all that,” Carroll critiqued on 710 ESPN Seattle.
The preseason saw Blair hit with all the right intentions but still get flagged for putting his head across the body of a receiver. Near-foot, near-shoulder was required. Check out this thread:
Blair is still learning this kind of stuff. He’s trying to punish receivers legally, in the safest fashion which USA Football recommends all coaches teach their players. Against the Ravens, Blair was still acclimatizing to the Seahawks defense in regular season action and played rather cautious, passing up the few big hit opportunities he was presented with.
The trip to Atlanta was different. Blair’s first hit was near-foot, near-shoulder with the head out of the way. This was coaching tape-level good, a deep-half break on a throw to the honey hole behind curl defender K.J. Wright.
“That’s getting the head out of hits, we’re trying to shoulder hit on everything...I thought that was a really good illustration,” praised Carroll on 710 ESPN Seattle.
The second, again smacking an unfortunate Calvin Ridley, got Blair’s head involved because of hitting with the far shoulder. It was such a split second play - Blair peeling off man coverage - that little could be done. Deciding not to flag it was the right decision from the officials.
Asked what he most liked about Blair’s play last Monday, Carroll’s answer was not surprising.
“He’s physical, he’s really decisive and goes after it, and has made numbers of big hits already,” Carroll responded. “He’s working hard at being clean at it and doing a nice job keeping his head out of there and all that, but he’s going after guys.”
Carroll’s comments on 710 ESPN Seattle matched his press conference’s reasons for enthusiasm.
“He’s knocking the fire out of receivers when they’re catching the ball downfield, so it’s exciting to see him out there and we’re gonna keep working with him.”
Blair was a rare bright spot on a coverage embarrassed at Atlanta, particularly in the second half, by Matt Schaub of all people. Akeem King showed the value of Tre Flowers, one of the best No. 2 cornerbacks in the league. Seattle was forced to turn to special teams captain Neiko Thorpe. Things got bad on the left side of the field.
With only two starts under his belt, Blair's only just getting started. He’s shown the ability to do everything you’d want from a safety, plus he’s already improving rapidly. His play has been so good that it's frustrating it's taken this long for him to start, playbook be damned!
The 22-year old Blair is a ball player ready to go. He makes all the plays. The safety position might finally be solved for the Seahawks, meaning the defense might stop looking like trash as the team looks to accelerate into the second half of the season seeking a division title.