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Rost: Seahawks get key plays from debuting defenders, but struggling D still a big concern

Seahawks safety Ryan Neal had four tackles and an interception Sunday. (AP)

The Seahawks’ defense needed help to stop Dak Prescott and the Cowboys from marching down the field Sunday, and they found it in the unlikeliest of places.

Seahawks 38, Cowboys 31 | Injury updates | Instant Reaction | Quick Hits

After a rash of injuries struck Seattle that week and during the game, it was two former practice squad players and a fifth-round rookie who came up big on Dallas’ final drive to get a stop and keep the Seahawks undefeated through three weeks. Safety Ryan Neal, who was thrown into the game after star Jamal Adams suffered a groin injury, put the final nail in the Cowboys’ coffin when he intercepted a pass from quarterback Dak Prescott in the end zone.

“I honestly can’t even walk you through the past 24 hours,” Neal told reporters after the win.

Along with linebacker Shaquem Griffin, the 24-year-old Neal had been activated from Seattle’s practice squad Saturday. The roster move followed a week that included injuries for defensive backs Neiko Thorpe, Quinton Dunbar, and Marquise Blair, the latter suffering a season-ending ACL tear. And Sunday morning, backup safety Lano Hill awoke with hip tightness and was a late scratch.

When Adams was forced off the field in the second half, Neal heard his name called.

“It happened so fast I don’t even think I had the opportunity to have a moment,” Neal said. “You’re in it and the next thing you know, I see Jamal (coming off the field) and I hear, ‘Neal!’ and I strapped up and said let’s go.”

Neal turned to Adams for help throughout the remainder of the game. Neal said that even while he was on the field, Adams continued to call out advice and tell him where to look.

“I told him as soon as I figured out what was going on, ‘Talk to me,’” Neal said. “’Let me know anything you see. I need you more now that when you were on the field.’

“I tip my hat off to a man like that,” Neal continued, “because a lot of people in that situation would go in a hole but he didn’t. He stayed there and he was there for me. And I appreciate that from Jamal. That was everything for me.”

The impromptu coaching moment paid off with Neal’s late-game heroics, but he wasn’t the only one to lend a helping hand. Griffin had a pass breakup on that same drive and rookie pass rusher Alton Robinson – active for the first time in an NFL game – sacked Prescott to force third-and-long on the play preceding Neal’s interception.

It was a handful of feel-good moments in Seattle’s otherwise concerning effort on defense. There were bright spots – Shaquill Griffin recorded his first interception since September 2018 and Ugo Amadi looked promising in relief of Blair – but for the second time in three weeks Seattle’s defense allowed 450 or more yards from an opposing passer.

The Seahawks’ early defensive statistics for the season are alarming. On average, Seattle is allowing 497.3 net yards per game, 434 passing yards, 6.6 yards per play, 8.13 yards per pass play, and 28.6 points per game. They’re also allowing offenses to convert on third down 51% of the time (21 for 41) and have allowed a conversion on seven of 10 trips into the red zone.

The Seahawks’ 2019 defense was a far cry from its 2013 self, but still held opposing offenses to 5.9 yards per play. It was near the bottom of the league last year (Houston was last allowing 6.1 yards per play) but would be an improvement from Seattle’s performance across these three contests.

It’s a strange start. On the one hand, the defense’s stars – Adams, Bobby Wagner, and K.J. Wright – have played well. There have been flashes from 2019 first-round pick L.J. Collier and free-agent pickup Benson Mayowa. But whether by injuries, busted coverages, or simply tough-to-make plays, Seattle hasn’t been able to string together a dominant defensive performance.

The Seahawks’ saving grace has been big plays on defense when it matters and top-tier production from the offense. There was last week’s thrilling goal-line stop and this week’s interception. And across all three games, Russell Wilson has a combined 13 touchdowns, an NFL record for the first three weeks of a season.

Where can the Seahawks find help on defense?

The Seahawks are clearly unhappy with their performance on defense so far. The team is 3-0 and sits atop the NFC West, which is something to be proud of. They’ve thrown their name into the pot as a true contender. But they’ll need an improvement on that side of the ball in the event Wilson doesn’t throw four touchdowns in a game (and despite his MVP-caliber start, that’s bound to happen).

“It’s not something I’m accustomed to,” Wagner told reporters of the yards his defense is surrendering each game. “(And) it’s not something I’m going to be accustomed to. We’ll make the changes.”

The defense has strong pieces and quality starters (not to mention two All-Pros), but Seattle could look outside the organization should any injuries be serious enough to warrant missing a significant amount of time. And on that side of the ball, the injury count is rising.

Head coach Pete Carroll was asked whether Seattle has the pieces it needs now to make those improvements on defense.

“I don’t know the answer to that right now,” Carroll said. “We’re always looking. We’re always looking.”

Follow Stacy Rost on Twitter.

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