If pro football was the PGA Tour, Quinton Jefferson’s career to this point would be one long scramble in local qualifiers to earn the last spot in the weekly field. But Sunday against the Cincinnati Bengals, it was as if he won the tournament, and discovered the next tourney is on his home course.
The Seahawks play the Steelers Sunday at Heinz Field in his hometown.
“It’s gonna be cool,” Jefferson said, offering a megawatt grin. “I’ve been watching Big Ben since I was a kid. It’s gonna be fun to actually play against him.”
He might be the only guy in Seattle who recalls fondly Super Bowl XL, when 23-year-old Ben Roethlisberger wobbled, lurched and stumbled the Steelers into a 21-10 triumph over the Seahawks. The only lingering consequence of the game locally is that its mere mention causes bile to back up in the collective throats of the 12s, so wretched was the officiating in Detroit against the Seahawks.
“I have no comment on that,” said Jefferson, still smiling, and keenly aware of his audience. “That was a dope game. At the time, I was happy.
“But I hope we get the win this weekend.”
Fourteen years later, Roethlisberger is the lone participant from the debacle still active. No witness then would have believed this was possible, not after watching him complete 9-of-21 passes for 123 yards, two interceptions, no touchdowns and a passer rating of 22.3. It may have been the worst full-game performance for a starting QB in Super Bowl history. But it is remarkable what can be accomplished when an NFL referee crew unhooks from reality.
Six Pro Bowls later, Roethlisberger, 37, got over his play that day, even if Seahawks fans have not gotten over the outcome.
That is not the problem of Jefferson, the 12-year-old Steelers fan then, and the 26-year-old Seahawks hero Sunday, when he was in on six tackles and had two sacks, two tackles for loss, three quarterback hits and two swatted passes in the 21-20 win over the Bengals.
It was the kind of pressure on QB Andy Dalton that the Seahawks expected would come from Ziggy Ansah, the expensive free agent hired for the task. But his surgically repaired shoulder kept him out. While all eyes, including those of Bengals blockers, were on star newcomer Jadeveon Clowney, Jefferson, a fourth-year pro from Maryland, made his career breakthrough on the other side.
Since Ansah’s availability for Sunday isn’t yet known, Jefferson may be obliged to repeat the feat against Roethlisberger and his presumably frothing teammates, who were humiliated on Sunday night national TV in New England, 33-3.
“My thing is, do it once, do it again,” Jefferson said. “The whole D-line will try to cause havoc again. Try to get in Ben’s face, then stop the run.
“He’s a big dude. DBs think the line has got the sack, then he’s throwing people off and launching it downfield. The DBs stop covering because they think it’s a sack. It’s a big challenge for us up front to get him down.”
Jefferson’s emergence was what the Seahawks had in mind much earlier, in 2016 when they made the rare move of trading up to take him with the 147th pick, despite that fact that he tore an ACL in college. As a rookie in Seattle, he tore the other ACL and also had a thumb injury that wiped out his season.
After the Seahawks cut him, he spent time on the Los Angeles Rams’ practice squad, from where the Seahawks plucked him when Cliff Avril’s neck injury ended his career in 2017. Jefferson started 12 games in 2018 opposite rush end Frank Clark, but the Seahawks felt they needed more pass rush help when they added Ansah and Clowney.
Then came Sunday.
“That was a great game,” coach Pete Carroll said. “He was so close to having more numbers too. He just missed a sack there late. Had another one, almost knocked another ball down, it was right in the face of the quarterback.
“We’re just thrilled … he has flexibility that we can move him around as well. He can play inside and outside, as you saw. It just like, it kind of came together. We’ve seen him all throughout the off season with a lot of confidence.”
Said linebacker Bobby Wagner: “He’s been through so much. He had a couple scary injuries, and for him to come back in the first game and be as dominant as he was, was really cool to see. Our whole front did a really good job. I barely got touched, so I’m very grateful.”
That the next game is in Pittsburgh is the kind of random good fortune missing earlier in his career. Jefferson is well known to Steelers coach Mike Tomlin, who regularly attends high school games in the area and saw Jefferson star at prep powerhouse Woodland Hills. He even invited Jefferson to Steelers headquarters for a pre-draft workout.
“I’m very familiar with the long-term growth and development, having watched him in high school, etc.,” Tomlin told reporters on a teleconference. “That wasn’t just last week.
“I’ve been going to high school football games the entire time I’ve been here. Got a lot of appreciation for the guys who have come through this area and are ascending within the professional ranks.”
Jefferson wasn’t surprised to learn Tomlin saw him in high school.
“The culture of football in western Pennsylvania is big, almost like Texas,” he said. “You might see anybody at these games. … It’s crazy, jam-packed. Any place a person can stand or sit, they’re there. A lot of energy, almost like a pro or college game.
“It prepared me; under the lights in a hostile environment. It was cool.”
Family and friends will be turning out to see Jefferson, who with his wife and four kids is also bringing his own platoon from Seattle.
He knows Heinz Field, which he first saw in pee-wee football when his team played the halftime game. He played later there in the state high school football championships. Now he goes as a pro.
Carroll has already had the talk with Jefferson about managing distractions in returning to the hometown.
“I’m not gonna go crazy and try to do something I’ve never done before,” Jefferson said. “Like coach says, don’t make (stuff) up.”
Besides, truth is always better than fiction.
Art Thiel is co-founder of sportspressnw.com.