PITTSBURGH, PA - Finally making his NFL debut after a five-week stint on injured reserve, the Seahawks didn't have a specific game plan for how many snaps rookie cornerback Tre Brown would play against the Steelers on Sunday night. As expected, coach Pete Carroll and general manager John Schneider were pretty coy about in regard to how much time he would see the field leading up to the game.
But after thriving in extended action due to an injury suffered by starter Sidney Jones early in the third quarter, Seattle should have no reservations about Brown's readiness. In fact, the former Oklahoma star did more than enough to justify a starting position across from D.J. Reed at the left cornerback spot moving forward.
"I thought it was really good. He looked really good. The opportunities he had, he was right where he was supposed to be," Carroll told reporters following the game. "I've got to see the film and all of that. But when he had the chance to make some plays, he looked like he was on it."
Throughout the early stages of the 2021 season, Seattle has been dogged by subpar cornerback play. Prior to Sunday's prime time tilt at Heinz Field, Carroll's defense had allowed 300 passing yards per game and the trio of Reed, Jones, and recently released starter Tre Flowers had combined to produce three pass breakups and no interceptions while allowing five touchdowns in coverage.
Viewed as one of the team's biggest question marks heading into training camp, the Seahawks made a flurry of moves in late August and early September trying to address the position, trading for Jones and John Reid in separate deals and signing Bless Austin and Nigel Warrior off waivers. But two of those moves bringing in Reid and Warrior may not have happened if not for Brown getting hurt during the preseason.
At the time, the fourth-round pick was rocketing up the depth chart and Brown started to see consistent first-team reps in training camp, impressing Carroll and the coaching staff in the process. Playing with no fear and plenty of physicality, he swatted away a pair of deep balls from Russell Wilson to DK Metcalf during scrimmage sessions and such plays had positioned him to make a run for a starting role right away.
Unfortunately, all of that momentum was lost when Brown hyperextended his knee during the second preseason game against the Broncos and suffered a significant knee sprain. Knowing he would be out for some time, Schneider dealt a conditional seventh-round pick to the Texans for Reid and then claimed Warrior off waivers.
Luckily for the Seahawks, Brown's recovery turned the corner earlier this month and he was designated to return from injured reserve prior to a Week 5 loss to the Rams. After a strong week of practice, while he didn't know how much he'd actually play him, Carroll followed through with his plan by subbing him in for Jones on the team's third defensive possession on Sunday night and the rookie wasted no time making an impact.
On his very first NFL snap, after quarterback Ben Roethlisberger dumped the ball off to tight end Pat Freiermuth, Brown flew up and recorded his first official NFL tackle. Four plays later, he corralled Dionte Johnson for minimal yardage after the catch on a quick five-yard curl for another tackle to set up a 3rd and 5 situation for the Steelers.
Looking to take advantage of the rookie in coverage, Roethlisberger went into attack mode on the ensuing snap, testing him downfield on a fade route to Johnson. But the young cornerback displayed outstanding technique opening up his hips and cutting off the receiver as he worked down the sideline, leading to an errant overthrow and forcing a third straight punt for Pittsburgh.
"That's all he's shown us. I've told you guys that. That's what he's been doing. And that was a really good first go. Here it is on Sunday night and the whole thing, and it was not too big for him at all," Carroll remarked. "He's been brought up right in the way he played in Oklahoma and all those big games and all that. This was not too big for him. He was really poised and did a nice job. Deserves to play more."
Despite the strong series, Brown didn't play another snap the remainder of the first half, as Seattle turned back to Jones at left cornerback. But when the veteran took friendly fire to the helmet from teammate Marquise Blair and exited with an apparent concussion early in the third quarter, the team had no choice but to cut the rookie loose and he kept making critical plays in the second half.
On his first drive back in the game replacing Jones, with the Steelers knocking on the door step of the goal line at the Seahawks 17-yard line, Brown smothered Chase Claypool on an out route, leading to an incomplete pass out of bounds. This helped keep the home team out of the end zone and limited them to a Boswell field goal.
After Seattle rallied to tie the game twice in the fourth quarter and force overtime, Brown then came up with one of the biggest plays of the game. With Pittsburgh facing 3rd and 4 from its own 26-yard line, Roethlisberger pump faked and then vacated the pocket to his right with defensive end Carlos Dunlap penetrating the pocket.
Indicating after the game that the Seahawks were playing quarters coverage, Brown knew once Roethlisberger left the pocket that there was only one receiver for him to go to in Ray-Ray McCloud. After covering a curl by Claypool, the rookie shot out of a cannon downhill and rocked McCloud immediately after catching the dump off pass, exhibiting near-perfect technique wrapping him up and bringing him down three yards short of the first down marker.
"Pre-snap, I saw the down and distance and so I covered the curl and when I saw Ben Roethlisberger scrambling, he was going to dump it off," Brown explained. "So I didn't think, I just had to put the pedal to the metal and just run and get a third down stop because they needed the first down more than anything and they were backed up to their end zone. And so that's when I went and pulled the trigger."
The sensational tackle forced the Steelers to punt, sending the football back to Geno Smith and the offense with a chance to orchestrate a game-winning drive. While that ultimately didn't happen, however, Brown did everything in his power to give the Seahawks a chance to snag a much-needed victory and earned himself additional playing time in the process making plays in coverage and as a tackler.
In a season where little has gone right for Seattle amid a disappointing 2-4 start, it's a sliver of positive news for the franchise as a potential long-term starter may have been unearthed in the secondary. As for the player himself? Brown's simply happy to be healthy and playing again and hopes to play a key role in the team getting back on the winning track soon.
"We lost the game, but we've still got a lot [to play for]. It's a long season, so we gotta keep our heads up. We got a lot to do and when we get the ball rolling it's going to feel a lot sweeter... When we start winning again, it's going to feel a lot better."