Nazair Jones was judged by Pro Football Focus having the highest game of any interior defensive lineman in the NFL last week.
In the happy tumult of the victorious Seahawks locker room Sunday in Charlotte, Nazair Jones decided to only look at the bright side to what has been one of the more vexing questions about the team this season: Why hasn’t he been playing more?
A third-round pick in 2017 out of North Carolina, Jones was a significant contributor as a rookie, playing in each of the first 11 games and starting two until he suffered an ankle injury that caused him to miss the rest of the season.
Healthy this year, Jones has been mystifyingly inactive much of the season, having played in just five of 10 games before Sunday against the Panthers in Charlotte.
Active again against the Panthers, he also turned in his best game of the season with three tackles in 19 snaps — his second-highest snap total of the season. That included credit for a solo tackle on one of the game’s biggest plays, a 3-yard loss by Christian McCaffrey on third-and-2 at the Seattle 4-yard line in the first quarter. That forced the Panthers to settle for a field goal and was the second time in the first quarter the Seahawks held Carolina out of the end zone after Carolina had marched to at least the Seattle 5-yard-line.
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“All of the red zone stops were dramatically important,’’ coach Pete Carroll said.
Jones’ play was finally cause for celebration in what was — until Sunday — a mostly lost season. Even more fitting, his performance came in a game that was something of a homecoming because Jones grew up in Roanoke Rapids, N.C. and had a handful of family members and friends in attendance.
The three tackles was more than he’d had in the first 10 games combined — two.
When asked if the game at least allowed him to shake off some of the frustration of the first 10 games, Jones smiled. There was no frustration on this day. Instead, he said, since he hasn’t been on the field much (just 80 snaps overall, per ProFootballReference.com), he’s not feeling the physical effects of a long season.
“It kind of feels good,’’ Jones said. “What are we, Week 12? I kind of feel fresh. I haven’t been playing that much. But I’ve just got to be prepared mentally and physically whenever my number is called and just try to get in there and be consistent and not let a play break because of me.’’
If you’re wondering why Jones hasn’t played more this season, Jones sounds like he’s sort of wondering, too.
“I honestly don’t know,’’ he said. “I’m just, whenever they tell me to suit up and go, I’m going. So I’m just trying to be more consistent in my ability so that (playing) can be more consistent for the rest of the season.’’
Carroll has said several times that the main reason Jones has been inactive is because the Seahawks are playing guys whom they think best match up against their next opponent.
He reiterated that Monday, when asked — once again — why Jones hasn’t been active more often this season.
“Matchups that we had at the time,’’ Carroll said.
In six of the last nine weeks (since the Seahawks lost veteran Tom Johnson when he was cut and re-signed with the Vikings), Seattle has alternated between keeping either Jones or Poona Ford active as the fourth defensive tackle on game day. (Each was active twice and inactive once in that span.)
The two have vastly different body types — Jones is 6-foot-2, 292 pounds, while Ford is 5-foot-11, 310 pounds — and play different roles, with Jones able to play some as an end.
Jones played well in a short stint the previous Thursday against Green Bay, and knowing that the Panthers would likely try to run it a lot — a weakness that’s plagued Seattle all season — the Seahawks went back to Jones on Sunday.
“We thought that we could match him up a little bit with the style that we were playing against,’’ Carroll said. “We gave him a chance and he did some good things, so he’s held on to it (an active role).”
According to Pro Football Focus, Jones was even better than simply doing some good things.
PFF gave Jones its highest grade for any interior defender in the NFL, citing him for making two run stops on 12 run defense snaps.
The biggest was the third-down play to McCaffrey, who ran over right guard, where Jones was lined up, on the side where the Panthers brought in an extra tackle, something Carolina did a handful of times throughout the game.
“On the goal line they run to where their extra offensive tackle is, so it was just knowing that the play would be coming my way,’’ Jones said. “I just decided to shoot it and try to get in the backfield and if I can just get him to stop his feet, I know Bobby (Wagner) is coming downhill and I know all the linemen are coming. So if I can get him to stop his feet, it’s perfect. But I got back there and made the play, so it was perfect.’’
The Seahawks need a lot more where that came from, though. After allowing 220 rushing yards to Carolina and an average of 8.1 per attempt, Seattle is now last in the NFL, allowing 5.3 yards per rush — n pace for worst in franchise single season history. (The 2002 and 2000 teams each allowed 4.9 per carry).
Under Carroll, the Seahawks have often thrived in the second halves of seasons thanks to the emergence of young players who finally turn a corner in their production.
Maybe Jones will be one of those guys this year? He’s just 23, after all, turning 24 on Dec. 13. Perhaps he can help improve one of the team’s bigger weaknesses.
“He’s still been a young guy coming on in terms of his consistency that we are working with,’’ Carroll said. “He’s active and he’s long and got the good reach and stuff that gives him a chance to make some special plays – gets his hands up real well and all that. It’s a guy we look forward to seeing him get around the ball.’’