Closing in on Sunday's season opener against the Colts with training camp in the rear-view mirror, the Seahawks had most of their starting lineup set in stone on both sides of the football.
On offense, Kyle Fuller appeared to have won the center battle against Ethan Pocic by default with the latter struggling to overcome a hamstring injury in camp. Defensively, the decision to trade Ahkello Witherspoon to Pittsburgh solidified Tre Flowers and D.J. Reed as Seattle's starting outside cornerbacks, at least for now. Away from those positions, most starting roles already had an incumbent in place returning from last year's NFC West championship squad.
But in Indianapolis, coach Pete Carroll did plenty of rotating at several positions. Fuller started at center and Pocic rotated in for him on a couple of series before exiting in the second quarter with a sprained knee. Linebacker Cody Barton checked in for Jordyn Brooks to play eight snaps at weakside linebacker alongside Bobby Wagner.
As Carroll had hinted at for weeks, the Seahawks also split reps close to 50/50 between third-year defenders Marquise Blair and Ugo Amadi at the slot cornerback spot. With the team playing nickel with five defensive backs on the field 82 percent of their defensive plays, Amadi logged 34 total snaps, while Blair played 28 in his first regular season action since tearing an ACL last September.
“Cody [Barton] deserved to be out there today. He had a fantastic preseason and all," Carroll told reporters after Sunday's 28-16 win. "You saw there were a lot of rotations today, a lot of things that were happening. Rotating the nickels also and so, those guys deserved to play so that’s what we’re working with.”
One year earlier, coming off a sensational second training camp, Blair won the starting nickel cornerback job outright. Seattle expected the hard-hitting, versatile defensive back to see the field extensively playing alongside star safeties Jamal Adams and Quandre Diggs, providing immense flexibility for coordinator Ken Norton Jr. on nickel and dime sets.
But before Carroll and Norton barely got a taste of what the trio of safeties could do on the field together, Blair's season came to an abrupt end two weeks later against the Patriots. Attempting to make a tackle early in the second quarter, former teammate K.J. Wright inadvertently struck him with his helmet in the knee, causing his leg to buckle. He was helped off the field and ruled out for the season the next day.
Taking his place in the lineup, Amadi outperformed expectations, producing 54 tackles and seven passes defensed while logging a career-high 551 defensive snaps in 14 games for the Seahawks. Though he allowed a 73 percent completion rate in coverage, he limited receivers to under eight yards per reception and didn't surrender a single touchdown. He also missed just four tackles all year, continuing to prove his reliability on defense and special teams.
When offseason activities got underway in May, the Seahawks internally hoped Blair, who had returned to the field in a limited capacity nine months after reconstructive knee surgery, would return to pre-injury form and return to the lineup. With that said, Carroll maintained he would need to win the job back and Amadi would remain in the mix for playing time given how well he played in 2020.
Dealing with a sore knee for a decent portion of training camp and the preseason, Blair wasn't quite able to do that. Once again taking advantage of his absence, Amadi turned in a solid camp and preseason, earning himself regular season playing time in the process.
In Sunday's win over the Colts, neither Blair nor Amadi was able to distance himself from his slot competition counterpart, leading Carroll to say the team would "keep going with the rotation at this point."
According to Pro Football Focus, Blair recorded two tackles in limited playing time, but also missed a pair of tackles and allowed two completions for 29 yards on three targets against him in coverage. Meanwhile, Amadi finished with three tackles and allowed a pair of completions for 24 yards on two targets. The two players received 43.6 and 60.7 overall grades respectively.
After re-watching Blair's first regular season game in nearly a year coming back from a rigorous rehab, Carroll admitted rust was evident following a long layoff and reminded reporters that the former Utah standout didn't play much in the preseason either.
“I felt, and I think Marquise did too, that it was good to get back out there. It was a little bit more new to him than he would have anticipated," Carroll explained on Monday. "Remember, since the second game of last year, he’s played 17 snaps going in this time. He’s still getting going, a lot more comfortable. He was a little bit on edge trying to do things exactly right. He wasn’t quite as cut and loose as he will be."
As for Amadi, Carroll seemed quite pleased with how he played moving all over the formation and helping the Seahawks mix up their coverages. He played 23 of his 34 snaps in the slot, but also saw nine snaps lined up in the box and one snap at free safety.
"Ugo did a really nice job," Carroll stated. "Really added to the looks and disguises and all that stuff."
While fans may want to see one player emerge as Seattle's primary slot cornerback, given the different strengths and skill sets Blair and Amadi possess, that ultimately may not happen. In fact, it may behoove Carroll and Norton to continue mixing and matching them depending on opponent and game situation among other variables.
Physical and aggressive in coverage at the point of attack, Blair offers the size, athleticism, and length to match up well against bigger slot receivers and tight ends. Known for his bone-jarring hits dating back to his time in college, he also excels playing near the line of scrimmage and as Russell Wilson can attest from his experiences on the practice field against him, he can be a nuisance as a blitzer against the run and the pass.
But Amadi brings his own advantages to the fold as well. Despite being only 5-foot-9, he plays far larger than his frame would suggest, particularly when it comes to getting downhill and defending the run. He has made significant strides when it comes to sticking with quicker, shiftier slot receivers, he's shown himself to be more disciplined and assignment-sound defensively, and he's been more consistent jumping routes to make plays on the football in games.
If Amadi and Blair could have their respective games merged together, the Seahawks would have one of the most dynamic playmaking slots in the NFL. But while that isn't a possibility, the coaching staff can achieve the same end result figuring out how to deploy both versatile players within the confines of their scheme using a platoon.
For now, that appears to be Carroll's plan for Seattle to get the most out of the position moving forward until one player truly emerges as the better option. Even then, in the team's best interests, it may be wisest to continue finding ways for both players to see the field in a by-committee approach.
"These guys are challenging each other. That’s what competition does. These guys are going to get us really good play. I can’t call it yet.”