By Les Carpenter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 12, 2006
KIRKLAND, Wash. -- Draft week always brought nods and smirks. The needs never changed for the Seattle Seahawks -- a hulking defensive end, a middle linebacker, a safety who could knock people flat. The choices were always obvious. Reports were made, arguments pursued, the data delivered and everyone knew just where it would go.
In the days when Mike Holmgren served double duty as coach and general manager here, the most compelling arguments for a defensive star were always for naught.
Holmgren was an old quarterback, his coaching mind sharpened in the thin pass-filled air at BYU and at the feet of Bill Walsh and the West Coast offense. As long as Holmgren was picking, everyone around Seahawks headquarters knew exactly what the team was choosing. And it wasn't some boring, old defensive tackle.
Which is how the Seahawks, who will host the Washington Redskins on Saturday in an NFC playoff game, came to build the framework of the league's second-most-potent offense, taking players such as league MVP Shaun Alexander, Pro Bowl guard Steve Hutchinson and tight end Jerramy Stevens. Yet the construction came at the price of a defense that seemed to get worse and worse by the season.
At one point during his last season in Seattle, Redskins cornerback Shawn Springs threw up his hands and complained, "We've got a lot of talent on this team, it's just all on the other side of the ball."
In an era when teams are building their Super Bowl runs with great defenses, the Seahawks were trying to be something of an anomaly -- a team that would try to win big by outscoring everybody. And for years it didn't work.
The coaches would talk about how all they needed to be were the St. Louis Rams of a few years ago, a team with a dominating offense and a defense that was ranked somewhere around 15th out of 32 teams. The problem was, the Seahawks weren't even close to being what those Rams teams were. Instead, the defense was in the 20s.
Last year it finished 26th.
This was the first thing Tim Ruskell, the team's new president of football operations, noticed when he arrived last winter. Springs's words had become obvious to everyone. The Seahawks could score but they couldn't stop anybody.
"You knew you had a great football team and it was lopsided," Ruskell said. "It was all on the offensive side."
So Ruskell met with the defensive coaches and asked what they thought was missing. The response came quickly. There was no consistency. Players would miss practices, they'd duck out of training camp sessions, they would claim injuries some suspected weren't there. And as players fell off, the defense fell apart.
"The problem was they lacked an identity," Ruskell said. "They lacked a quarterback for the defense. Usually that comes from the middle linebacker spot."
Perhaps in a fitting indictment of the Seahawks defensive problems, they had not had the same player start two straight years at middle linebacker since Dean Wells in 1997 and 1998.
But there were other problems. The defense's best player, Anthony Simmons, had become unreliable. Chad Brown, the star linebacker, had broken down. The defensive line seemed unable to tackle anyone. The first-round selection in 2004 -- a defensive tackle, Marcus Tubbs -- missed much of the year and appeared overwhelmed.
Which is what makes this season so remarkable. As rundown and beaten Seattle's defense looked last year, it has been everything but this season.
The team that was ranked 26th in 2004 is 16th this season.
And that has a lot to do with the difference between 9-7 and 13-3. Even the team's offensive leader admits as much.
"Oh, all of it is defense," Gil Haskell, the Seahawks' offensive coordinator said. "Now we don't have to run up and down the field trying to keep up."
Seven times this year, Seattle's defense has allowed 14 or fewer points and it leads the league with 50 sacks.
"Basically it's chemistry and the camaraderie of the team," said linebacker Niko Koutouvides. "We do everything together."
After talking with the coaches, Ruskell set about to build a defense built less on stars and egos and more on tackles and fundamentals. Soon Simmons and Brown were gone. Defensive end Chike Okeafor, a dependable but aloof player, was allowed to leave in free agency, as were linebacker Orlando Huff and cornerback Ken Lucas. Defensive tackles Rashad Moore, Cedric Woodard and cornerback Bobby Taylor were cut.
In their place came a collection of minor names but solid players, like cornerback Andre Dyson, defensive end Bryce Fisher and defensive tackle Chuck Darby.
"We wanted to bring in guys who had a passion for the game," Ruskell said. "High-motor guys and not guys who put themselves ahead of the team. You needed a team concept, which the coaches thought was lacking."
Dyson, who has battled injuries, still brought a stability to the secondary. Fisher gave the team a legitimate pass rusher, with nine sacks, and Darby became a mentor to Tubbs, who suddenly blossomed with his new inside partner.
To fill the void at middle linebacker, Ruskell stunned everyone in football trading up in the second round and drafting USC's Lofa Tatupu, a player who had been targeted as a third-round pick at best. He also chose outside linebacker Leroy Hill in the third round, a choice that barely drew any notice.
But as it turns out, both players are starting and Tatupu has become the long-lost leader in the middle of the defense.
Suddenly the team that everyone could run on with ease has the fifth-best rushing defense. Teams are still able to throw on the Seahawks, but part of that is because of midseason injuries to Dyson and fellow cornerback Marcus Trufant. And by stopping enough of their opponents' running games, they have forced teams to attempt to convert long third downs, thus preventing the long defensive stands it seemed Seattle was always making.
There's a new attitude in practices. Haskell notices it in the way the defense now harasses his players, knocking balls from their hands, intercepting passes rather than just shadowing receivers.
They have done all this without changing schemes, leaving the same base defense designed by defensive coordinator Ray Rhodes -- only Rhodes is no longer coaching them. Earlier in the year he suffered two health problems, one later described as a mild stroke, the other as hypertension. Holmgren told Rhodes, who was the Redskins' defensive coordinator in 2000, to cut back his hours and put the defense in the hands of linebackers coach John Marshall.
If such a thing might have ruined last year's unit, it barely fazed this group. If anything, it got better in Rhodes's absence, putting up shutouts on "Monday Night Football" in Philadelphia and against San Francisco on consecutive weeks in December.
For a team that couldn't stop anybody in previous years, this was a startling statistic.
A one-sided team no more.