As Pete Carroll watched Tyler Lockett elude would-be tacklers during an 18-yard punt return last week, the Seahawks coach noticed something unusual about the fourth-year receiver and return man.
Lockett was smiling.
Yes, even as Cowboys players attempted to inflict physical punishment on Lockett, he was grinning as he weaved his way towards midfield, helping set up a field goal just before halftime.
"Have you ever seen anybody run a punt back smiling?" Carroll said following last week's win over Dallas, which included a 52-yard Lockett touchdown reception, his third in as many games. "He was smiling on his last punt return. He came over to the sidelines and he was smiling. He was smiling during the return. Woody Hayes used to say you can't make a tackle with a smile on your face, but you can return a punt with your smile. He did it today."
And Lockett has good reason to smile heading into Seattle's Week 4 game at Arizona, and not just because he signed a lucrative multi-year contract extension last month. With Doug Baldwin sidelined for the last two games, and most of the season-opener, Lockett has been more important to Seattle's offense than ever, and he has responded with a team-high 196 receiving yards and a touchdown in each game, all while averaging a career-best 16.3 yards-per-catch. Lockett also had a 99-yard kick return touchdown in Seattle's final game last season, meaning he has scored in four straight games dating back to 2017.
Lockett's importance to the Seahawks was never more obvious than in the first half of last week's win when he played a big role in Seattle building a 17-3 lead. Lockett had a diving 8-yard catch on third-and-5 to extend one drive, he picked up 6 yards on third-and-6 to keep alive a drive that eventually ended with a Jaron Brown touchdown reception, he had a 52-yard touchdown reception on third-and-9, and he had the aforementioned punt return to help set up a Sebastian Janikowski field goal just before halftime.
Lockett says he hasn't put any more pressure on himself with Baldwin out, but even if he wasn't thinking about making up for Baldwin's absence, he helped do exactly that.
"I just go out there and play," Lockett said. "The biggest thing is trying not to put pressure on yourself and make it even more difficult than it already is. You've just got to go out there and just play and just let the game come to you. Obviously whatever the opportunity is, first down, second down or third down, when we get the chance we want to make the best of it."
And now, with Baldwin expected back for Sunday's game, Seattle's offense and passing game should be in even better shape going forward.
"He's off to a great start," Carroll said of Lockett. "He has a touchdown in every game, he's making plays, makes things happen. He's really good at getting open underneath on the third down stuff in the slot. It gives us a great variety when Doug gets back, that we can have those guys. He's playing great football."
Added quarterback Russell Wilson, "Tyler Lockett has been phenomenal. I think that he's really developing into the receiver that he's always fully really wanted to be, and he has always been great. I think that now, just to see his progression, as any player—quarterback, receiver, running back, doesn't matter—we progress over time. You either progress or you regress, so I think that for him, he's progressed in a positive way. I think even last year, he was overcoming his injuries and stuff like that and still did great. This year, he's fully healthy and really flying around making a lot of plays."
Of course, being productive is nothing new for Lockett, a three-time All-Pro returner who has been a big part of Seattle's success since he was selected in the third-round of the 2015 draft. Since coming into the league, Lockett has gained 5,630 all-purpose yards, the most in the NFL during that time. Lockett's speed and elusiveness have helped him be one of the league's most dangerous big-play threats as well. In three-plus seasons, Lockett's average touchdown distance is 47.0 yards, which ranks second (minimum 10 touchdowns) to Kansas City's Tyreek Hill (49.9) since 2015. Of Lockett's 16 touchdowns, 10 have covered 40 or more yards, including two 50-plus yard scores this year.
Making Lockett's 2018 success even more enjoyable both for him and his teammates is what he had to overcome to get back to playing at this level. Lockett broke his leg late in the 2016 season, an injury that required surgery, and while he returned to play in all 16 games last season—a huge accomplishment by itself—he estimates he played much of last year at around 75-percent. Lockett started getting back to feeling himself late in the seasons, and showed it with that 99-yard score against the Cardinals in Week 17, then came back this year looking like the explosive player he was prior to the injury.
"I can't say enough about Tyler," Baldwin said. "I think that outside of football, just to get to this point. The emotional, physical battles he's had to go through. The injury that he had a couple years ago was a very significant injury. As you can imagine, not only the time it takes to come back physically, but also there's some time to come back mentally and emotionally from that. He's done a fantastic job at it. He's battled in every way that you can imagine and he's going out there and he's dominating. He's playing at a very high level and he's having fun—which is the most important thing, he's having fun. I couldn't be more happy for him. Proud of him because he's developed into such a great leader for our team. I'm looking forward to his progression as a man overall in the future."
Lockett's long road back from that injury is a big part of why Carroll has been so happy to see the receiver putting up big numbers this season, occasionally with a smile on his face.
"Those kinds of injuries can really have an effect in both directions, and some guys can respond and some guys don't," Carroll said. "Most of the time, when they get back and they feel good finally, it's that level of appreciation, the gratitude to have the game back that they had loved so much and had lost, because there are times in there where they don't know if they're ever going to make it back or maybe they don't want to get back because it hurts so bad and it's such discomfort. It killed me to watch him the year when he got back and he just kept struggling to get to practice and struggling to get off the practice field. It was hard every day for him compared to what he was like when he first got here. It broke your heart because he wants to do more than anybody, outwork everybody and stay out here forever and show up early and all that. He just wasn't able to, so to see him coming back around now and getting back into that kind of groove and be playing so well and be contributing so well—and he had the recognition about his contract and all that—he's just hitting it right."
The Seahawks and Cardinals will meet for the 40th time in the regular season this Sunday in Seattle. Take a look back at photos from past games played between the two teams.