Seattle Seahawks

Seahawks have jobs open at starting safety, nickel entering final two weeks of preseason

The former Legion of Boom remains a Legion of Whom.

With less than two weeks left in the preseason the Seahawks still have jobs to settle in their changed defensive secondary.

The starting safety pairing remains a layered competition entering Saturday’s third preseason game at the Los Angeles Chargers. Same with the fifth, nickel defensive-back job inside against slot receivers.

Sunday night’s 25-19 preseason loss at Minnesota did not settle much for either spot.

Bradley McDougald started at strong safety against the Vikings and Tedric Thompson was again with him at free safety, as he has been for all of training camp this month.

But Lano Hill is about to enter the competition in full for the first time.

Hill returned to scrimmaging in practice last week but has yet to play this preseason. He was in full pads participating in pregame drills Sunday night at Minnesota. That’s an indication he is likely to play Saturday against the Chargers, who are likely to have Philip Rivers and their starting offense play their most time this month.

Hill started Seattle’s final two games of the 2018 regular season last December, at strong safety. That had McDougald, whom coach Pete Carroll has called Seattle’s best coverage defensive back, at free safety. Then Hill cracked his hip and missed the playoff game at Dallas. For the wild-card loss to the Cowboys Thompson was back at free safety and McDougald at strong. That’s how it was for 10 consecutive games from October to late December. Thompson replaced All-Pro free safety Earl Thomas, after Thomas broke his leg in late September to end his time with Seattle.

Thomas signed with Baltimore this spring. He was the last of the famed, Super Bowl-champion Legion of Boom defensive backs to leave the Seahawks. The team waived Richard Sherman before the 2018 season. Kam Chancellor retired following a neck injury late in the 2017 season.

Hill appears to be competing with rookie Marquise Blair to possibly win a starting safety job. Blair, the second-round draft choice from Utah, was carted off the field early in the fourth quarter at Minnesota. Carroll said Blair, who debuted so impressively in the first preseason game against Denver, had back spasms. His status for Saturday night’s game in California is unknown.

“He had back spasms in the second half. I don’t know what that means right now,” Carroll said after the game, before the players’ two days off from practicing. “His back got tight, kept getting tighter.”

General manager John Schneider called Blair a “silent assassin” for his hitting as a strong safety. But Blair has been a free safety in practices and games the last two weeks, paired with 30-year-old veteran DeShawn Shead.

Hill is a strong safety in the Chancellor sense (though nowhere nearly in the talent or production sense, no one is). He’s a tackler nearer the line of scrimmage, almost as an extra linebacker. When Hill is in McDougald takes a more Thomas-like role of deep center fielder as a single-high free safety. That’s the scheme Carroll has employed for most of his decade as Seattle’s coach. It’s been the same when Thompson has played; he’s been the center fielder deep and McDougald the closer-to-the-line strong safety.

But when Blair has played, the Seahawks have often interchanged him and Shead this month in a more nuanced, disguised free-and-strong safety switch-off depending on down, distance and offensive formation. They have at times lined up side by side before the snap. That gives a two-deep safety look. Carroll often talks about the need for his safeties to be interchangeable, as McDougald as been for Seattle the last two seasons. When Blair is on the field, they are.

Blair’s versatility is attractive. It allows coordinator Ken Norton Jr. to get creative. He can disguise defensive alignment and coverage. No clear single-high free safety by alignment makes it a more difficult pre-snap read for quarterbacks. Who is the free safety? Who is the strong? Which one will drop deep after the snap?

The Seahawks no longer have the All-Pro talent in the secondary to just line up, show everything and beat you with elite skill. They are trying to make up for that by getting more creative, varying, disguising—and blitzing—more in the back of the defense.

This month has been to see who can blitz and play those varying roles.

“I think (it’s) trying to find out the personality of the team, trying to really figure out what we do best,” Norton said.

“There’s still a few games left in the preseason. There is a lot of evaluation left to go.”

The Seahawks seem to be waiting for either Hill or Blair to play their way into a starting job over the final five practices of the preseason, beginning Wednesday, and the final two exhibition games. The last one is Aug. 29 against Oakland.

If neither does, it appears McDougald wil be at strong safety, the position the veteran has said he likes more, and Thompson at free safety to start the season opener Sept. 8 against Cincinnati.

The Seahawks also need to settle who is going to replace Justin Coleman as the nickel back. Coleman left in March in free agency, signing a contract worth $9 million annually to play for Detroit.

On the seventh play of Sunday’s game, Minnesota’s third and 2, Jamar Taylor was the new nickel defensive back. The seventh-year veteran and full-time starter for Cleveland in 2016 and ‘17 earned that role by being the best cover man in training-camp practices this month.

Taylor was late getting over to Brandon Zylstra on the Minnesota wide receiver’s inside-then-outside route at the goal line late in the third quarter. The 4-yard touchdown pass from Kyle Sloter put the Seahawks behind 17-13.

Taylor had been playing more backup cornerback until last week. Akeem King, Kalan Reed and rookie fourth-round draft choice Ugo Amadi had been getting time at nickel before that.

Seattle Seahawks cornerback Jamar Taylor (8) tackles Denver Broncos wide receiver Kelvin McKnight (16) during their preseason game. The Seattle Seahawks played the Denver Broncos in a NFL preseason game at CenturyLink Field in Seattle, Wash., on Thursday, Aug. 8, 2019. Joshua Bessex

Amadi’s best play Sunday night wasn’t at safety. It was on special teams. Coaches in film study this week are playing and replaying perfect punt coverage play by the rookie in the second half. The safety from Oregon made a quick inside release to split a Vikings double team on him as the outside gunner. The fourth-round pick then sprinted to the returner and laid him out with a perfect shoulder-form tackle immediately upon his catch.

Amadi played free safety in the second half. He was called for holding while giving up a 9-yard catch by Laquon Treadwell for a first down on third and 5 from the Seattle 10-yard line in the fourth quarter. Minnesota scored a touchdown on the next play then got the two-point conversion for a 25-16 lead.

The Seahawks used six defensive backs, dime, about a half-dozen times in the first half. That continues a trend Norton started in the latter half of last season. Taylor was the fifth defensive back and Shead the sixth.

Shead’s place on the team shouldn’t be in much doubt, not with the speed he’s shown in his return, his experience playing every position in Seattle’s secondary and being a special-teams captain for this team three years ago. Plus Carroll loves his former undrafted rookie decathlete from Portland State for coming up through his Seahawks system the long way to become a Super Bowl winner.

Carroll and the entire Seahawks sideline loved Shead in the middle of the second quarter Sunday.

Minnesota quarterback Sean Mannion watched his receiver Chad Beebe stop his route in the red zone as he threw outside. Shead intercepted the gift pass, and there was no one from Minneapolis to Milwaukee in front of Shead. He out-ran every Viking with no one closing on him over the entirety of his 88-yard return for the score. That showed what he told Carroll at Cliff Avril’s retirement party in the spring to get a Seahawks tryout: His surgically repaired knee is fully healhy, and that he is actually faster than before the surgery in January 2017 when he was still with Seattle affected his 2018 with the Lions.

Shead’s role appears to be a trusted backup at every position in the secondary and mainstay on special teams.

The starting safety and nickel jobs remain open.

Norton said the coaches are using some “sports science,” the tracking monitors players now wear under their shoulder pads, to fairly distribute playing and practice time among all the competitors for these jobs.

“I see a lot of great competition,” Norton said. “With that being the central theme of our program, it’s really good to see the guys really fight it out, guys are fighting for reps, fighting for chances to get on the field and play in these games. It’s a great competition. I’m really excited about it.”

The final two preseason games will determine who wins.

“It’s competing. It’s about the games,” Norton said. “I think practice is one thing, but making plays, and working, and communicating, and covering the good guys in the games is what it comes down to.”

Gregg Bell is the Seahawks and NFL writer for The News Tribune. In January 2019 he was named the Washington state sportswriter of the year by the National Sports Media Association. He started covering the NFL in 2002 as the Oakland Raiders beat writer for The Sacramento Bee. The Ohio native began covering the Seahawks in their first Super Bowl season of 2005. In a prior life he graduated from West Point and served as a tactical intelligence officer in the U.S. Army, so he may ask you to drop and give him 10.
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