RENTON — The Seahawks’ season-opening win at Atlanta on Sunday also served as a coming-out party for the top of the team’s 2019 draft class — defensive end L.J. Collier and defensive back Marquise Blair.
Collier, Seattle’s first-round pick taken 29th overall, got the first start of his career in Seattle’s 38-25 win, and Blair, taken 47th overall, got his first start in a new role at nickel cornerback.
Both did enough to make the Seahawks believe they may have found permanent homes for this season.
Collier, who had just two tackles on 152 snaps last season, made the first significant play of his career early in the game, forcing an intentional-grounding penalty on a second-and-five play that helped force the Falcons to settle for a field goal on their first drive.
His 30 snaps were his second most, behind the 37 last year at Carolina when he had to play due to depth issues.
But this game looked far better than that one, when Collier didn’t record a statistic. To coach Pete Carroll, Collier’s performance Sunday helped confirm that the improvement he showed during training camp was real.
Carroll last week said Collier would start ahead of Rasheem Green, citing his play in camp and his health. Collier lost about 10 pounds during the offseason, and his rookie season was derailed by an ankle injury.
“He had a few good rushes where he affected the quarterback,” Carroll said of Collier. “He got picked off on a run one time, something he hadn’t seen before. So he’s got a lot of room to grow. But his activity was really there, his quickness was there, and the conditioning played all in all game long and did a nice job.
“So I think it’s a really good first step. I think this is like his first, first step you know? What happened last year, you know I don’t think that was representative of what he’s capable of doing.”
Collier said in a Zoom interview this week that last year, “I just felt sore all the time. This year I don’t feel that way. … I know more, and I feel smarter.”
Defending the run will be key for Collier, as that may be his primary responsibility.
Collier played 19 snaps against the pass and 11 against the run Sunday, according to Pro Football Focus, with Green coming in and playing 26 snaps against the pass and just four against the run, the two appearing to have some clearly defined roles.
But Green suffered a stinger in the game and is listed as doubtful for Sunday night’s game against New England, and Seattle may rely on Collier more. That could be a good matchup for Collier, though, because the Patriots had a 42-to-19 run-to-pass ratio last week.
Collier said he knows his job this week will be containing the running of quarterback Cam Newton, who had 75 yards on 15 carries in the Patriots’ 21-11 win over Miami on Sunday.
“Stopping the run, man,” Collier said of the key Sunday. ” … We stop the run and bring them out of the comfort zone and make them throw the ball, and that’s where we know we got them, because Cam’s a big, running quarterback and we take him out of his comfort zone, make him drop back and throw the ball, and I feel like we have them.”
Blair, meanwhile, played 55 snaps out of 68 total in his new role as the team’s nickel corner after spending last year at safety. He moved to nickel after trades for veteran safeties Quandre Diggs and Jamal Adams since last October, and after a rookie season in which he started only when others were injured.
Blair’s usage, which included playing 47 snaps directly defending the slot, according to Pro Football Focus, showed that the Seahawks indeed plan to use more nickel defense this year — especially with Blair appearing up to the task — after staying in a base defense almost 70% of the time last year, by far the most in the NFL.
As Atlanta’s passing numbers indicated (450 yards), it was hardly flawless for the secondary (Blair was rated 74th out of 84 cornerbacks overall last week by PFF and 76th out of 83 in pass coverage grade). Those grades don’t include Blair’s forced fumble on a fake punt that helped turn the game Seattle’s way in the third quarter.
“He played well,” Carroll said. “He had a real good feel for it, looks very comfortable.”
As Carroll noted, playing Atlanta meant it was a game “we needed to be in nickel.”
The Seahawks probably won’t be in nickel as much against the run-heavy Patriots. But Blair’s physicality might make Carroll comfortable leaving him out there on running plays (he was on the field for eight running plays last week).
One game hardly a season makes.
But a comment Carroll made of Blair undoubtedly also applies to Collier: “I’m really glad he had the opportunity to get out and get a lot of chances. It’s going to help us down the road.”