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Seahawks on tape: Why Seattle drafted Marquise Blair

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NCAA Football: Holiday Bowl-Northwestern vs Utah Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports

Following the Seattle Seahawks’ 2nd round, pick #47 selection of Marquise Blair, John Schneider was asked what he liked about the former Utah safety. The Seahawks General Manager got right to it, enthusing: “Physical. Great athlete. He ran fast. True competitor.” In his 10th draft, Schneider traded back from early 2nd to mid-2nd, gaining another pick. Yet he still managed to get a Seattle player.

Jim Nagy was an NFL scout for 18 years and was most recently with Seattle, where he served for five seasons as the Southeast Area evaluator. Now the Reese’s Senior Bowl director, it was obvious to Nagy that Blair fit the Seahawk prototype:

“Coming from Seattle. That guy’s a Seahawk safety right there,” disclosed Nagy at the 2019 Senior Bowl opening presser.

Nagy was right. Blair was projected by many analysts as a Day Three pick, but Seattle’s Front Office and Head Coach Pete Carroll clearly fell in love with the traits and athleticism of the player. Here’s how Blair tested:

  • Height: 6ft 1
  • Weight: 195lbs
  • Arm length: 31”
  • 40-yard-dash: 4.48 seconds
  • Vertical jump: 35”
  • Broad jump: 125”
  • Short shuttle: 4.49 seconds (pro day)
  • 3 cone: 6.84 seconds (pro day)

There are rough, jagged elements to Blair’s skillset. But Carroll clearly trusts his coaching to polish Blair into an NFL gem. Let’s get to the tape and study the game of Seattle’s 2nd overall player.

A silent assassin

Seattle’s defense looked slow last season. They needed to get faster and nastier, at safety and up front. Blair helps that. His trademark trait is keying rapidly and then hitting like a bullet train. A downhill flyer with aggression and speed is getting increasingly difficult to find in college football. Schneider described Blair as a “really intense tempo setter” and “a tough, tough dude.” Meanwhile, Carroll disclosed that “it’s [Blair’s] toughness that we really are excited about.”

In his rookie mini-camp presser, Blair told reporters that his mentality comes from playing “backyard football.” His play-style inspiration was YouTube highlights of any big contact:

“When I was little I just watched highlights a lot, just hard-hitting highlights. Just anybody.”

It shows.

Clip 1: Blair did bite somewhat on the play-action, but his energetic hustle to get out to the wide receiver screen and punish the receiver was exciting.

Clip 2: This is excellent trigger speed from Blair running the alley, where he kept near hip pursuit and cleaned the running back out.

Clip 3: The downhill hunger from Blair extends to deep safety. Here he surges from single-high and joins the pile.

Blair will add twitchy venom. That’s what clearly stood out most to John Schneider and Pete Carroll. “He’s really violent, really aggressive,” Schneider summarized. He added “He’s really quiet. Like a silent assassin. This guy’s like…he’s scary tough.”

Live by the sword…

Die by the sword. (Or a weapon that assassins use, IDK) Players who play football ferociously are more susceptible to tackling misses, dangerous plays and ejections; Blair was ejected from two college games in 2018. The NFL lacks the stringent, sometimes harsh targeting rules of college football. Blair’s tape had aiming point plus footwork issues and Blair can refine his tackling technique.

Clip 1: Blair was eager to beat the OL block after quickly keying the screen play. He thundered downhill with speed. However, once getting to his spot, he needed to close on the ball-carrier with his feet. It was a solid juke from the ball-carrier and a tricky play for Blair to make, but some extra, smaller steps and greater control would have helped avoid the missing lunge.

Clip 2: The running back cut inside, sending Blair to the floor because his feet weren’t controlled.

Clip 3: This is reminiscent of a Tedric Thompson open-field miss. Coming downhill from deep safety in the cavernous open-field is hard. Yet Blair’s miss was preventable. He goes to dive at the ankles of the receiver, again from far away. Getting slightly closer with less of a lunge, then aiming his eyes higher, through the thighs, would have led to a higher chance of success.

Fortunately for Blair, Seattle has produced excellent instructional videos for coaches, in correspondence with USA Football, on how to teach players to tackle. There is an emphasis on near-foot, near-shoulder contact, with players “swooping” into the tackle with control.

The Seahawks are one of the best franchises to go to if a player wants to sharpen their tackling. Misses from Blair may decrease, but the dangerous plays aspect is likely to be tougher. The issue will be getting Blair to sink more at the knees and bend less at the back.

When asked about his ejections, Blair said “I just gotta lower my target.” That’s fine, but to do that the defender must be able to see what he is hitting. Blair, by bending at the back, reduces his vision of his target and the head will naturally dip more. Whether a slightly different hitting position can be learnt at this stage is highly unlikely, so Seattle may have to live with it.

Ultimately, when Blair does fully break down he is a very reliable tackler. It’s just channelling his want to blow defenders into smithereens. The theme of the Seahawks trusting their ability to develop certainly extends to Blair’s tackling. Said Carroll “It’s just hitting people. He needs to do it right…I think we can focus that.” Schneider answered questions of ill-discipline with “We’re cool with it.”

Sashimi-raw at single-high

I like sushi, especially the accompanying sashimi. I don’t like Blair at single-high safety. Judging by the post draft comments of Head Coach and General Manager, the Seahawks don’t seem to either. They certainly prefer him down near the line of scrimmage as a strong safety. “We’re gonna zero him in, make it focused for him as he starts out at strong safety,” disclosed Carroll.

Blair beginning as a box defender therefore makes sense. He has a worrying tendency to to open his hips early from his backpedal at deep safety, guessing on which way to flip rather than reading a quarterback’s intentions or the route concept.

Worse was Blair’s inability to defend multiple vertical routes from deep—a crucial trait for a free safety in a cover 3 system. A four verts concept is the standard beater! Too often, Blair read the concept wrong and left routes open in behind him. This abysmal ranking of threats made him a liability all too often.

Clip 1: Blair in his 1/3 had to recognize the offensive concept and the defensive coverage. At first, he should have gained depth in his zone and tried to dissect the two vertical routes from the #2 and #3 receivers. However, after the #2 receiver cleared the hook-curl defender, Blair needed to be closer to that route. Poor eye discipline drew him fully towards the #3 receiver’s route, which was already covered well by Cody Barton (matching Final 3 Crosser).

Clip 2: This is a similar situation, with Blair being drawn to the #3 receiver. He has a tendency from deep to open early and gamble on what he sees first. That’s a terrible trait to have, and one offenses will exploit with baiting routes. Blair gets away with his poor coverage as the wide open #2 receiver drops a sure touchdown.

Smaller areas...

In smaller areas, though, Blair is much more comfortable. Last year, Seattle’s defense evolved into playing more match quarters and cover 1 with the initial match-ups disguised. This was particularly true against 11 personnel, shotgun spread teams like Kansas City.

Clip 1: An unusual play from the defense, but Blair seamlessly picked up the uncovered man on the play-action pass.

Clip 2: When his initial pre-snap intention is matched by the post-snap process of the quarterback, Blair has quality range. This play was from single-high and he almost gets to the ball thrown from the boundary to the field. That’s a lot of space to cover, sideline-to-sideline, even if the rest of his tape suggests he has a history of guessing and playing overly instinctual on the back-end.

Shrunk down to a deep half, Blair could excel. On the brief occasions he executed that assignment for Utah, he looked comfortable. Furthermore, Utah deployed their half safeties in role that kept them close to the hashmarks—which would ease the transition to a quarters-role.

Clip 1: Blair “pitches his tent” well and maintains sound leverage.

Clip 2: This is another rep that provides us with a glimpse of what Blair could do in Seattle’s scheme. On the boundary cornerback blitz, Blair is tasked with covering the isolated receiver one-on-one. The way he reads the receiver’s hip, stays in phase and maintains the initial inside leverage is impressive. It’s a trait that suggests a fluent translation to the Seahawks’ man coverage.

However, Blair’s man coverage is still largely an unknown. Perhaps tellingly, Utah frequently kept him out of man coverage scenarios even when they had the opportunity. Pete Carroll’s coaching and the step-kick press technique would put Blair’s solid length (31” arms) to use. It was revealing that Carroll mentioned the slot unprompted when first talking about Blair: “We’d like to start him at safety and inside.”

When asked if he could do nickel stuff, Carroll reiterated Blair’s man coverage potential: “There’ll be opportunities for some special stuff. For him to match-up.” “Special stuff” might well mean big nickel, with starter reps potential hard to come by in his rookie year. But it will likely extend to the “bandit back” role of the Big Dime defense the Seahawks enjoyed success with last year on passing downs.

Blair’s change of direction skills did look leggy, with a lack of flexibility affecting his ability to sink into cuts. He has a solid speed turn but flipping the hips and sinking at cut points took him some time. The 4.49 second short shuttle of his pro day matches this but the 6.84 second 3 cone disagrees. Regardless, like every Seattle safety since the days of Thomas and Chancellor, Blair is likely restricted to matching up with tight ends only.

Despite Carroll saying he wants to zero Blair in at strong safety first, Blair’s rookie day comments reiterated the underrated, required versatility of a Seahawks safety. When asked how similar his usage was to Utah, Blair answered: “It’s kinda the same thing. We go to strong safety, free safety.” This certainly suggests more interchangeability, though that has always been an underestimated aspect to Seattle’s defense. The safeties rotate more than one would think, especially against motion. The “uh-oh” aspect of Blair at deep middle then emerges.

Underneath coverage

Playing more regularly as the down safety, Blair will most often be deployed as a “buzz defender.” That is what Seattle calls their hook-curl, buzz-to-flat coverage guys, and they often have two of them on each play—3 deep, 4 under. the pass, the hook-curl is Blair’s best assignment. He gets rapid depth shuffling to his zone landmarks thanks to nice footspeed. But it’s the cerebral part of his coverage that most impresses.

Clip 1: This was superb hook curl spacing from Blair. He first took away the out route for the quarterback. He then moved backwards to take away the Y-Cross 95 concept of Washington State.

Clip 2: Again: Blair executed splendidly. This clip shows him dropping into a hook curl over trips. His scanning towards the #2 receiver was crucial to his successful coverage. It took away the corner route and the primary read of the quarterback. This is a coaching tape combination of instincts, smarts and awareness.

Clip 3: Blair acted as an excellent underneath layer of coverage beneath the #3 receiver’s vert. The quarterback noticed that it was a Middle of the Field Open defense from Utah and tried to squeeze the ball down the middle of the field. But Blair’s tight merging made the throw near-impossible.

Clip 1: Blair stayed disciplined in the red-zone sticks defense. He didn’t overcommit on either route and acted as the perfect coverage layer

Clip 2: Blair almost went for the shallow route outside, but he stayed put underneath and then ran well with #1’s post, forcing the throwaway.

The Seahawks are big on “indicators” for their zone defense, both pre- and post-snap. It’s all about making the zone less spot-drop, more zone-match. Seattle talks about indicators with their coverage, adapting their zones to beat multiple concepts. Pre-snap, one of the indicators is formation. The tight receiver split on the backside. Post-snap, the shallow route must be indicator.

Mike Leach loves mesh, or “92.” It’s the staple Air Raid passing concept along with Y Cross (95). The scouting report ahead of the Washington State game would have been full of it. And still Blair bit on the cheese of the first shallow route (a big Seattle “no-no”). He didn’t recognize the concept. He took the bait. Pretty much every NFL starting overhang defender can play a “hook curl” zone well. What makes for excellent hook-curl play is concept recognition.

Defending the run

Playing cover 3 involves the strong safety in the box a fair bit. The position is required to set the EDGE as the FORCE defender or line up near the tackle as a TAN player, a player who looks to turn the ball back to a run-through inside linebacker or searches for the next available gap.

These roles require the ability to take blocks on from fullbacks and offensive linemen and set the EDGE. I’m not talking to the level of Kam Chancellor, bench pressing right tackles. But a degree of physicality is required that Blair lacks right now.

Sure, he brutally smacks when surging downhill at receivers and running backs. But Blair struggled to take blocks on with less of a run up when involved in the box fit. Instead, he relied on his agility and accelerated to dip inside blockers for the tackle.

Clip 1: Facing NFL competition in Andre Dillard exposed just how weak Blair was in the box. His assignment tasked him with reading off the 4i (inside shoulder of the tackle) defensive end in front of him. Blair had no plan for stacking and shedding Dillard. The result was him getting stuck to the block of Dillard and he kept going backwards and backwards, before eventually spinning further back to try and disengage. By this point, the play was over.

Clip 2: Blair was fitting the b-gap from the box on this cut-up. He was quick, but he didn’t use his hands to squeeze the block and hold his gap. Instead, he surged through and made the guard’s job so easy. Blair ended up getting pushed out of the play, well past the running back and opening his gap up again.

There are some serious positives to Blair’s box play. Toughness is of course the main one. But there’s plenty more, hence why the Seahawks want to maximize his reps near the LOS. Consider Carroll’s observations: “We really like him attacking the line of scrimmage. He blitzes well. Tackles well. Hits well. Great feel.” “Great feel” features in all these clips. Blair doesn’t just run fast, he also processes quickly.

Clip 1: Blair was reading the 4i defensive end and fitting either outside or inside depending on where the run went. He maintained his depth, giving him the runway to duck inside the outside block from the tackle to make the tackle for loss.

Clip 2: Blair’s quick processing and removal of threats, first honoring the primary concern of the jet sweep with depth and then quickly registering the quarterback keeper was beautiful on this play. He scraped for the tackle.

Clip 3: Blair ducked inside the lead block of the jet sweep after quickly identifying the play type. (Bending at the back is somewhat disturbing, he really needs to sink more, but that’s an issue mentioned earlier.)

Clip 4: This was excellent from Blair, with him reading the downblocking offensive line. He stayed home to play the quarterback keeper, forcing the ‘give’ read. After seeing the ball handed off, Blair then scraped around the pile and made the tackle for loss.

Weapon?

Blair’s blitzing ability deserves a mention. It’s sudden and disguised, full of the violence and hunger that accompanies Blair’s downhill pursuit. It earned a mention from Carroll and there will be a separate Seahawks on tape covering Seattle’s pressure options later in the offseason.

Projection

The key to an effective evaluation is the much harped on mantra of “focus on what a player can do.” Blair’s skillset, as outlined above, fits a Cover 3 strong safety very well. Except there’s one nagging thought that pierces the “what he can do”; his ability to take blockers on in the box. Blair’s so keen to try run around or inside blocks that his ability to set the EDGE or be the turnback player in the fit can be questioned. If that’s still unsure come week 1, Blair will not be a starting member of the Seahawks defense.

Can a 195lb player with these traits get it done in the box, in Seattle’s style of defense? Blair adding bulk doesn’t seem conducive to his game, given his downhill speed is a big positive. So, will increasing his hand usage and encouraging him to stack blockers on the outside noticeably improve things? Carroll will back the coaching staff’s ability to mold Blair’s nose for the football into an effective NFL EDGE setter.