During the second quarter of his first NFL start, Seahawks rookie safety Marquise Blair raced towards a scrambling Lamar Jackson, as did linebacker K.J. Wright. The Ravens quarterback slipped just before either player reached him, and Wright touched Jackson down a split second before Blair arrived, giving Wright credit for the tackle.
Television cameras caught Blair talking to his veteran teammate as they walked away from that play, and Wright later explained that the rookie was jokingly giving him a hard time for taking that tackle.
"We were right beside each other every play, and he was actually out there making jokes like, 'K.J., I'm trying to get this tackle, come on bro,'" Wright said. "He had some fun. Marquise did really well. He understood the defense really well, tackled really well, showed a lot of speed, so he's off to a good start."
That good start continued with an even better performance in Seattle's Week 8 win in Atlanta. In that game, Blair's second straight start, the second-round pick out of Utah had a team-high 11 tackles, as well as a crucial forced fumble at the 1-yard line to prevent a likely Falcons score. Blair's athletic ability and physical play have had a lot to do with his success in his first two starts, but so too has the mentality that Wright saw on display in that game against Baltimore. Even in the heat of the moment of his first career start, Blair was relaxed enough to crack jokes with his teammates; that showed Wright something he hasn't seen from many rookies over the course of his nine-year career.
"It surprised me, but it was cool though," Wright said. "It just showed how comfortable he was, showed his confidence."
Blair played well enough in place of an injured Bradley McDougald that the Seahawks would have wanted to find ways to get him on the field regardless of other injuries, but with Tedric Thompson going on injured reserve this week and with Lano Hill and Quandre Diggs battling injuries as well, Blair now appears to be a fixture in the starting lineup going forward.
In his mind, those impressive two starts didn't change anything for Blair, because he came into the season confident and feeling like he could be a starter in the NFL.
"I've been feeling comfortable," he said. "I've been playing football my whole life."
Asked if being a starter as a rookie was a goal, Blair answered, "Yeah, of course," in a tone that implied that it would crazy for him to answer any other way.
But even if Blair, a man of few words when it comes to the media, isn't overly impressed by what he has accomplished of late, he has definitely made an impression on coaches and teammates.
"It's all upside," Seahawks coach Pete Carroll said. "I think everything is out in front of him. He's shown the running and hitting like we love. Very instinctive football player. Very tough. Every game is a good experience for him to grow and just continue to get better and more confident. He already plays with a lot of confidence in the way he attacks the football and attacks his plays to be made. He'll just get better over time."
Back in 2012 when Bobby Wagner was a rookie starting at middle linebacker, he remembers then linebackers coach Ken Norton Jr. telling him "run fast, if you make a mistake, make it at 100 miles per hour."
Blair has shown that same approach—though not to be outdone, Wagner joked that Blair is maybe only going 99 miles per hour—flying around to make plays, even if there has been the occasional miscue to go along with a big tackle, pass breakup or forced fumble.
"He's a playmaker," Wagner said. "He really grasps the concepts of the defense but, he's just flying downhill making plays. He made a play on the goal line where he's making the tackle but, to have the mindset to try get the ball out right before the guy gets on the goal line. It just shows that—he has so much to learn but, where he's at is really impressive. As he gets his starts and as he recognizes the game is just the game, he's been playing all of his life, I think he's going to make a lot of big plays for us."
Blair's rookie season got off to a slower start than he would have liked due to injuries in the offseason and training camp, and as important as discipline is on the back end of Seattle's defense, he wasn't ready to be thrown into a big role at the start of the year. Because the way Carroll views it, you can't play safety in his defense if you're regularly giving up big plays, regardless of the upside. Even Earl Thomas was nearly benched as a rookie before he and Carroll had a talk about him being more disciplined on the back end of Seattle's defense. But while some rookie mistakes are inevitable, Blair has shown enough growth that the Seahawks trust him and see the big-play upside outweighing the occasional mistake.
"There's a lot to that," Carroll said of the line a safety has to walk between being assignment correct and trying to make big things happen. "First, they have to serve the defense. They've got to do things right, be where they're supposed to be and give us the basics and the fundamentals of it. Then, as they make the statement that they understand and they get it, then they'll feel more comfortable, more confident, and free up more to be more active. Some guys don't wait very long. This guy in particular, Marquise, he's going for it. We're really excited for his nature that he brings."
One of the most obvious things Blair brings is a hard-hitting nature that he has shown at every level. Blair said that mentality dates back to his days of playing tackle football with his four brothers and other neighborhood kids in Wooster, Ohio.
"Just playing backyard football growing up, tackle… We used to be outside every day playing football."
So who hit the hardest out of those five brothers?
"Me," Blair said incredulously.
Surrounded by reporters in his locker, Blair is cordial though not longwinded, but he also exudes a quiet confidence that turns into something else on gameday.
"He doesn't talk much, but he's a very mellow, cool guy and then all of a sudden he puts the helmet on and he's a wild man," said rookie linebacker Cody Barton, a teammate of Blair's at Utah. "He just wants to kill people. Great player, super smart on the field, has great range. Playing with him coming from Utah, I know how he plays and he's going to do great things here."
Barton made that prediction of great things for Blair in May during Seattle's rookie minicamp, and now eight games into his rookie season, Blair is looking like someone ready to live up to those words.
"Marquise Blair, he's a special guy, I think we saw that early on in the draft process and through that evaluation we felt like he was the future around here," Norton Jr. said. "He was a guy who really had a certain knack for the ball, he played very aggressive, he had a certain instinct, he had a natural ability to be around the ball and make a lot of plays. So, he's a guy that we feel like with development and in time, he's going to be a special guy."
The Seahawks and the Buccaneers will meet this Sunday at CenturyLink Field for the ninth game of the 2019 season. Take a look back at photos from past games between the two teams.