Seattle second-year defensive lineman Quinton Jefferson had a breakout game against the 49ers Sunday finally playing without a cast on one of his hands.
If Quinton Jefferson seemed like a different player during Sunday’s 24-13 win at San Francisco, there’s at least one pretty obvious reason.
For the first time in his NFL career, Jefferson got to play without a cast on his hand.
True, Sunday was just his sixth NFL game.
But finally able to use both hands, Jefferson also was able to finally show why the Seahawks were excited enough about Jefferson to take the rare — for them, anyway — move of trading up to select him in the fifth round of the draft in 2016.
Playing a career-high 32 snaps Sunday, Jefferson forced an early intentional grounding call on San Francisco’s C.J. Beathard the play before Bobby Wagner’s interception that led to Seattle’s first points.
Then later in the second quarter, his rush on Beathard helped set up a sack by teammate Frank Clark on a third down play that forced a punt.
“I think he is well on his way,’’ defensive coordinator Kris Richard said. “We are very pleased with his development.’’
Jefferson, who played just three games last season before a knee injury ended his season and then was waived by Seattle this year and spent some time with the Rams before coming back to the Seahawks, thinks maybe the breakout might have happened earlier had he always had full use of his hands.
The three games Jefferson played last season came after he broke his left hand in practice — he made one tackle in just 20 snaps before hurting his knee and having season-ending surgery.
Jefferson was re-signed off the Rams’ practice squad in October to help replace the injured Cliff Avril. But roughly 20 minutes into his first practice in his reunion with the Seahawks he then broke his right hand on a pass rush drill and had surgery.
He returned to play against the Giants and Washington, making his first career sack in the latter game.
But it hardly needs stating that playing with a cast on his hand didn’t help things.
“It’s hard enough playing with two hands,’’ Jefferson laughed.
Jefferson said trainers told him late in practice prior to the Atlanta game — a contest for which he was inactive when the Seahawks still had Dwight Freeney — that he would no longer need to wear a cast.
“It was like Christmas,’’ he said.
Asked the admittedly not-great question of what the difference is playing without a cast, Jefferson responded with another smile.
“Um, just the ability to use two hands,’’ he said.
Having use of both hands, though, may be more important and subtle than is realized. While the ability to tackle better is obvious, what may be underrated is the amount of hand fighting that goes on in the trenches, the kind of battles Jefferson has had to fight, well, short-handed until Sunday.
“Before, when I played a little bit this year with one hand, it’s like I’ve got to win every move right now because if not, it’s hard to counter or do any grab moves to get hands off of you,’’ he said. “It’s like you’ve got to win right now with hand placement.’’
Jefferson says playing as much as he did with a cast “helped me in the long run’’ because he perfected some moves and strategies he might not have otherwise.
But having full use of both hands he said helped his confidence immeasurably.
“Just felt good to get back in my groove,’’ he said. “I’m loving it.’’
Jefferson was drafted to play a role similar to that of Michael Bennett — as an end in the base defense and inside on passing downs — and his emergence Sunday allowed the Seahawks to give Bennett the most snaps off that he’s had all season.
Bennett played a season-low 76.1 percent of the snaps against the 49ers (an admittedly still-high percentage) something Bennett didn’t even do in an earlier blowout of the Colts, when he played 85 percent of the snaps.
Jefferson had just one regret Sunday, that he missed a tackle on Beathard on the third-down play in which Clark got the sack, instead. Jefferson broke quickly past 49ers guard Laken Tomlinson and had Beathard in his sights before the QB broke away momentarily.
“I’ve just got to finish next time,’’ he said. “But yeah, it felt good being active out there in my rush. It was fun.’’