Lano Hill starting over Marquise Blair is mightily frustrating. This personnel choice, forced by Quandre Diggs’ high ankle sprain, caused much consternation among Seahawks fans the past two weeks. Hill has by no means been as bad as Tedric Thompson, but he is seemingly plagued by the anti-playmaker curse that "T2" was too.
Blair, on the other hand, has made a ton of plays in limited playing time. It was more than Hill has managed to produce in his entire professional football career. For the first time since the "Legion of Boom," it looked like Seattle had a baller on the back end. The second-round rookie’s speed, willingness to hit, and instincts for the ball make him a natural play maker. Before the arrival of Diggs from Detroit, Hill was still injured and Blair was able to get starting reps at free safety.
With the benefit of hindsight, perhaps we should have been more cautious about Blair excitement. After Blair had forced a Week 8 fumble against the Falcons, Ken Norton Jr’s mid-week press conference was not as enthusiastic as you might expect.
“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,” the defensive coordinator said in his evaluation of Blair's play in Atlanta. “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.”
Coach Pete Carroll has repeatedly mentioned that Blair is behind after missing spring practice with a hamstring injury. This past week, Carroll was asked on the dilemma between playing an experienced player over a talented rookie. “It depends on what the circumstances are,” answered Carroll. “This time of the year, this late in the year? Yeah.”
The second part of that answer is illuminating. It suggests that Blair still isn’t at the schematic level where the Seahawks can feel comfortable with him out on the field. If the free safety gets the coverage call or adjustment wrong, a coverage bust can happen and the likely result is a terrible touchdown. Hill can make all these checks. It’s not glitzy, but it’s essential to playing on a functioning defense. Heck, Seattle’s scheme is relatively simple too.
The Ravens game featured a potential example of Blair missing a requisite check to the pass defense. In order to protect their Cover 3 zone defense against the standard beater—seam routes—Seattle will have one of their four underneath defenders match a seam route vertically. Meanwhile, the free safety will cheat his deep third zone towards the other seam route, if there is one, 60/40.
Against Baltimore, Thompson was playing deep safety and, following the Ravens shifting into a 2x2 formation, cheated his deep third 60/40 to the first seam route. Seattle, for the majority of the time, asks their other safety to handle the second seam. That should have been Blair in his curl flat, buzz defender role. Furthermore, in base, the Seahawks run “Soft Sky," with an outside underneath defender matching the second seam, over an inside underneath defender matching the second seam. I detailed the check in detail over at USA Football.
Yet on this play, Blair pushed wide to his usual landmark, to and thru the numbers. The rookie did not pick up the second seam. Fortunately for him, the ability of K.J. Wright to process the play prevented the impending disaster. Wright bailed back after the play-fake and located the seam. While still open, Wright’s depth made the catch a bit harder for Mark Andrews and the tight end thankfully dropped the touchdown. This is a Blair bust.
Hill did miss a tackle against the 49ers, giving up about 15 more yards. Yet overall, in this game, Kyle Shanahan did not target Hill or the free safety spot. Instead, Shanny looked to work the perimeter of Seattle’s defense, taking advantage of the Seahawks getting into 5-2 and 6-1 looks with Mychal Kendricks and sometimes Bradley McDougald down at the line of scrimmage.
Quandre Diggs missed a tackle on the very same play-call in the first matchup, on the road in Santa Clara. He had the exact same assignment as Hill, playing the deep third. The truth is, this is a difficult tackle. It’s in oceans of space, with little help, plus develops super fast.
Hill’s more egregious bad angle came on Kenyan Drake’s 80-yard touchdown Week 16 run, a play where Rasheem Green messed up and then Hill tracked Drake atrociously. This should never have been six points for Drake and the Cardinals.
A defensive-wide issue has been the abysmal ball-carrier pursuit. This is particularly grinding as it was the Seahawks who helped USA Football with their “Heads Up Tackling” course. (I’m certified in the USA Football Youth Tackling course and Rocky Seto, former-Seahawks assistant head coach turned pastor, is the man who guides you through the various shoulder tackles) See below:
While ability-wise it’s as simple as Blair being a fast play maker and Hill not being, the situation additionally seems to be as basic as Blair not knowing the playbook as much as he should. It’s evident that Seattle's free safety on the back end is asked to make a lot of the coverage checks and adjustments. This makes sense, given that the free safety has the best field of vision. In the preseason, we could see other veteran players almost babysitting Blair through the schematic elements and that theme continued into the regular season.
We can be certain that Blair’s talent is ready for the NFL. With Diggs healthy for the wild card game against Philadelphia, the Hill over Blair topic does now become somewhat of a moot point though—please don’t let Blair get benched in dime in place of Hill! However, we must hope that next year sees Blair pick up on the defensive scheme.
On the other side of the football, sixth-round rookie receiver John Ursua has struggled to get onto the field, despite a dearth of quick-to-separate targets on offense. This was initially put down to Ursua not knowing the playbook either.
In a college football world where more and more play callers are moving away from wordy calls and into concept groups—some even ditching playbooks all together—perhaps the Seahawks, and the NFL teams in general, need to look at adapting their Xs and Os teaching. After all, talent trumps scheme. In the case of Blair, Seattle needs to find a way to get him onto the field quicker.