Ryan Neal started his weekend as a member of the Seahawks practice squad, figuring he'd watch Seattle's Week 3 game from the sideline.
A day-and-a-half later, Neal was being mobbed by teammates in the north endzone at CenturyLink field after making the game-clinching interception to preserve a 38-31 victory over the Dallas Cowboys.
One play before Neal became the game's unlikely hero, rookie Alton Robinson, who had been inactive for each of the first two games, sacked Dak Prescott, forcing Dallas to use its final timeout. And just before Robinson earned his first NFL sack, linebacker Shaquem Griffin, who like Neal was a Saturday call-up from the practice squad, had a pass breakup.
Add to those last-drive heroics a very strong performance by second-year defensive back Ugo Amadi, an injury replacement in the nickel role, and on a day when the overall defensive performance left a lot to be desired, a big highlight for the Seahawks was the way a number of young players stepped up and took advantage of their opportunities.
"I was really excited about that, and guys were really excited in the locker room too to see those guys get in the ball game and not just get out there, but to do something," Seahawks coach Pete Carroll said. "Shaquem did some really cool things down the stretch in coverage and in pressure. Alton, was great to give him all that play time, Damontre Moore was out there digging and clawing and scratching. Jarran Reed had some really nice big plays today; knocking around and forcing some issues that happened on pass rush. Ugo continues to make things happen; I'm really excited about what he's doing. He jumps into a position that we were really concerned about because Marquise was such a beautiful player in the system, but he's really stepped up and been very, very active. The great interception by Shaquill today. He had a bunch of tackles, too. We are just thrilled that those guys were able to that."
Neal, who has spent time with the Eagles, Falcons and Seahawks since going undrafted out of Southern Illinois in 2018, mostly on those teams' practice squads, said his interception was the reward for staying committed to the process even as he wondered if he'd ever get his shot in the NFL.
"There's been times when I've wanted to quit, but you just don't," he said. "You keep going and you never, ever know when that moment can be yours. That was the one thing that kept me waking up in the morning was that you never know when this opportunity (will come). I've been through the practice squad ringer, this is Year 3 now. All three years, I had the opportunity to get activated, and you have to be ready for your moment. Like I tell all the guys that are on the practice squad and the undrafted guys, I'm in their boat too. You just never know when it's your moment, so I always stay ready and stay working."
The scene around Neal after his interception showed how excited his teammates were for him to come through in such a big way. Neal didn't know until Saturday that he'd be on the roster for today's game, but even after getting that news he figured he'd be playing primarily on special teams, but due to a fourth-quarter injury to Jamal Adams, he found himself thrown into the defense with the game on the line. The rest of the Seahawks could appreciate how unlikely it all was for Neal and what that moment meant both for him, and for the team, which survived a drive deep into its own territory for the second week in a row.
"I'm definitely proud of everybody who had to step up," Shaquill Griffin said. "We've been dealing with a lot of injuries which is really tough. That's something that we never look forward to. With the next man up, everyone is doing their job and doing a lot better. I feel like there's some things that we need to fix. Communication can be a lot better. Some of the coverages that we busted need to be a lot better. When it comes to my brother stepping up in a huge way, Ryan Neal coming and stepping up in a huge way when Jamal goes down, it's just something that we need to continue to focus on to get better at. But I'm proud of those guys who had to step up and do exactly what they needed to do to help us win this game today. I was proud of them."
Added linebacker and defensive captain Bobby Wagner, who had 10 tackles, two for a loss, "It was really cool to see those guys step up and make plays, especially Ryan and Shaquem, because they weren't even dressing last week. Alton didn't either, and those guys came in and they were ready to play. Alton was able to get a sack, Shaquem was able to get some great tackles and great finishes, and obviously, Neal had the pick to kind of seal the game. I always appreciate and am grateful for their focus, because without that, those plays aren't made. It speaks loud to those guys locking in and being ready when their number is called, stepping up to make plays."
But while those big moments by young players were encouraging, as were some other big plays like Shaquill Griffin's interception and Reed's sack/forced fumble that was recovered by Benson Mayowa, two turnovers that led to touchdowns, and the safety forced by defensive tackle Bryan Mone, there are also some significant concerns for Seattle's defense after a third straight game of giving up big plays and big numbers in the passing game.
The Seahawks gave up big passing numbers to Dak Prescott, who went 37 for 57 for 472 yards, three touchdowns and two interceptions. Most concerning isn't the overall yardage, but the number of big plays the Seahawks conceded. The Cowboys scored three touchdowns of 40 yards or longer, had a 52-yard completion, and overall, Prescott completed nine passes of 20 or more yards.
"We have areas all over the place that we have to get better at," Carroll said. "We have a lot of work to do on our pass defense; it continues to be a problem. The third-down thing is not good enough. We have to finish our sacks."
Griffin, who got beat by Michael Gallup for that 52-yard gain, was hard on himself and vowed to be better.
"Giving up that deep ball, that's something I don't do," he said. "I need to continue to stay locked in. I feel like teams are starting to try and get me to calm down and fall asleep on that back side where we go through a whole quarter where I'm not giving up any targets or anything, and I get to a point where I'm falling asleep on that back side. So I have to do better on my part, stay consistent and staying in tune to the game each and every play. That's something I'm going to work on, on my behalf. I have to do a lot better, I have to."
Wagner's demeanor in his postgame press conference, despite the win, told you everything you need to know about how the Seahawks felt about their overall play on defense despite some notable bright spots.
"It's not something I am accustomed to," he said of the numbers Seattle gave up. "It is not something I want to be accustomed to. We'll make the changes, we just need to get off the field, we need to make our plays. I think that's really it, just need to be a little more locked-in, a little more sound, and make our plays when they come to us and get off the field. I think we are hurting ourselves in a lot of facets and we have to get that out of our ball."