RENTON, Wash. -- The first sign that 2019 could be a breakout season for Shaquill Griffin came on a play that didn't even count.
It was in the fourth quarter of the Seattle Seahawks' Week 1 win over the Cincinnati Bengals. When a neutral-zone infraction gave the Bengals a free play, Andy Dalton heaved a deep ball 40 yards down the right sideline to John Ross, he of the record-breaking 4.22-second 40-yard dash at the 2017 scouting combine.
Griffin ran stride for stride with Ross the whole way, then made a perfectly timed leap to knock the pass away with his outstretched left hand. It was a textbook play from Griffin, right down to avoiding contact with Ross in a way that didn't give officials a reason to flag him for pass interference.
And it was a play he might not have made last season, when he was carrying around extra weight that left him fatigued late in games.
Griffin is a different player physically and mentally in his third season. He lost almost 20 pounds and also ditched what he called a "selfish" mentality that he had last season -- that he needed to be Richard Sherman just because he was replacing him at left cornerback.
The result: Griffin has quietly played at a Pro Bowl level through the Seahawks' first nine games even as he awaits his first interception this season. He's been the most consistent player in a secondary -- and a defense in general -- that has had its hands full and will again Monday night against the unbeaten San Francisco 49ers at Levi's Stadium.
Griffin's nine pass breakups is one off the NFL lead and already three more than he had last season. According to NFL Next Gen Stats data, he has allowed an 82.2 passer rating when he's the nearest defender in coverage. That ranks 14th among NFL players with a minimum of 40 targets and represents a significant improvement over his 94.7 mark from 2018.
"I think Shaq's having a great season," Seahawks coach Pete Carroll said. "He's having his best season. He's the most consistent. He's been productive making plays. He's challenged guys. Played a bunch of really good guys already, ton of good receivers. He's playing with the confidence that you would hope he would play with after a couple years of starting."
Cheesecake Factory out, sugar-free cheesecake in
If a story about Griffin's emergence as one of the NFL's promising young cornerbacks sounds familiar, it should. He was on that track early last season when he picked off a pair of passes in a Monday night game at Chicago in Week 2. That doubled Griffin's interception total from his rookie season and offered a glimpse of how high his ceiling could go.
But that strong start gave way to uneven play.
"He had some early success, and then it just kind of just was even-keeled, and I just thought OK," Seahawks defensive backs coach Andre Curtis said. "It was a good season, but I was anticipating more out of him because of his ability level, his character and his work ethic. And it's starting to come to fruition for him."
By his own admission, Griffin was too heavy last season. He jumped up to 212 pounds after playing at around 195 in college and as a rookie in 2017. At first he told himself that the extra weight would serve him well in run support, and since he didn't notice a drop-off in his speed, he thought it was fine.
"I feel like now that I think about it," Griffin said, "I feel like that was more of an excuse just because of the way I was eating."
Shaquill's twin brother, Shaquem, a special-teamer and backup linebacker for the Seahawks, was unsatisfied with his own up-and-down rookie season. The brothers made a game-changing decision to hire a personal chef named Tony Escamilla, who was already working with right guard D.J. Fluker.
Chef T, as they call him, flies up from San Diego every other week and cooks the brothers three meals a day from Monday through Friday. He delivers lunch to them at the Seahawks facility when he's in town and preps meals for the weeks when he's back in San Diego. The menu is low on carbs and high on vegetables and seafood. Fried food has been replaced by baked food.
"All the fried stuff is out and sweets is definitely out the equation now," Griffin said.
Too many trips to the Cheesecake Factory and too much cheesecake itself contributed to Griffin's weight gain. Now he talks incredulously about Chef T's sugar-free cheesecake, which Griffin calls "out of this world."
"Still blown by that," he said. "Incredible."
Griffin notices his weight loss, especially late in games.
"I feel like last year, I was able to keep my speed, but it just took so much out of me," he said. "So if I had a deep route and I had to come back and do it all over again, I'd be dead tired. And now I can just, I can go. You play against receivers, they're in one play and then they'll put somebody else in, run you deep and get you tired. Then they'll put their starters back in. At first, I used to be tired, and it used to be hard for me. Now I can go all day no matter who's in and who's coming out. I can go all day."
Playing his own game
Sherman put his arm around Griffin in 2017 and mentored him the way he does all young cornerbacks. And when the Seahawks released Sherman after that season, Griffin felt pressure to fill Sherman's Hall of Fame shoes, to his own detriment several times.
Instead of trusting his instincts and preparation, he jumped routes to try to make plays that weren't there. One of Griffin's more forgettable moments from 2018 came in a loss to the Los Angeles Chargers, when he bit on a double move against Keenan Allen, resulting in a 54-yard completion that converted on third-and-15. In Seattle's playoff loss to the Dallas Cowboys, Griffin struggled in coverage (eight receptions, 108 yards, touchdown, per PFF) and lost contain on a 44-yard Ezekiel Elliott run while playing on a sprained ankle.
Griffin gave himself a D-plus for the season.
"I feel like I was trying to imitate other people or trying to be something I wasn't," he said. "Sherm left and I moved to the other side of the field to play left corner, and I feel like I had to make plays like he made, instead of just playing my own game. So just the mindset and everything else has changed."
Griffin is now playing his own game and picking his spots wisely, as he did late in the Seahawks' win over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers last week. Near the end of a long day in coverage against Mike Evans -- Pro Football Focus credited Evans with five catches on six targets for 81 yards against Griffin -- he came through with a critical pass breakup on third down in the fourth quarter. Griffin recognized the formation and Breshad Perriman's release, trusted his gut and made a play that helped send the game to overtime.
He entered the game leading NFL cornerbacks in the percentage of targets defended or intercepted at 25.7%.
"He's just been stepping up," Curtis said, "and our defense is going to continue to need him to do that."