By Mark Maske
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 3, 2006
DETROIT, Feb. 2 -- When the Seattle Seahawks picked USC linebacker Lofa Tatupu in the second round of the NFL draft last spring, they had done their homework and were confident they were getting a sound, mature player who might make a contribution as a rookie. What they didn't know was that they'd end up not only with an immediate starter at middle linebacker, but also with the leader of their defense in a Super Bowl season.
"Coming into the league, the veterans on every team run things," Seahawks Coach Mike Holmgren said. "The rookies kind of find their places, and eventually take over. Lofa has established a leadership position on the football team right from the beginning, not only as a player on the field, but as an off-the-field guy in taking guys to dinner and organizing team functions. It is a very, very unusual set of circumstances."
The defense certainly is not the focal point for the Seahawks as they get ready to face the Pittsburgh Steelers on Sunday. Their offense is full of Pro Bowl players and led the league in scoring during the regular season. But Holmgren counts a defense that added some toughness this season as one of the main reasons the Seahawks broke through and became an elite team, and the play of Tatupu has been a key ingredient.
"It wasn't something where he brought attention to himself," said Seahawks defensive end Grant Wistrom. "It was just how he handled himself. He has a presence, and guys responded to him."
Tatupu started every game, led the team in tackles and reached the Pro Bowl as a replacement for injured Chicago Bears middle linebacker Brian Urlacher. He isn't loud or boastful but, his teammates and coaches say, he carries himself with a quiet confidence in the locker room and he isn't afraid to take charge on the field. He is a precise player who rarely is caught out of position, they say, and he set the tone for the club's win over the Carolina Panthers in the NFC title game with a jarring hit on Nick Goings that knocked the tailback from the game with a concussion.
Tatupu, the son of former NFL fullback Mosi Tatupu, suffered a mild concussion on the Goings hit but remained in the game, merely serving to boost the esteem his teammates have for him.
"The guys on this defense have been phenomenal," Tatupu said. "They've allowed everyone to really have their say. This isn't a defense with just one leader. We have several -- Grant Wistrom in the front, [injured safety] Kenny Hamlin in the back and really just a bunch of young linebackers trying to find our way. We kind of all stepped in to take a leadership role and we're just enjoying ourselves. . . . You don't get this far, to this game, without being a tight group."
Tatupu shrugs off the praise he receives from his coaches, perhaps not wanting to sound too much like a teacher's pet.
"It's not an easy transition," he said. "It always looks easy when you're winning. But I get corrected in that film room just as much as the next guy. It's been a learning experience every game, every play, but it's one that I've had fun with."
John Marshall, the Seahawks' linebackers coach who has added the defensive coordinator responsibilities this season because of Ray Rhodes's health problems, said the team consulted with USC Coach Pete Carroll and linebackers coach Ken Norton Jr. during the pre-draft evaluation process, and became convinced that Tatupu would make a relatively seamless transition to the NFL.
"We had a very, very good feel of what his demeanor would be in the locker room during the season," Marshall said. "And it proved to be right, everything they said. . . . We wouldn't have taken him in the second round if we didn't feel he was a guy who could come in and do that. Now, did we expect him to come in and, in the first game, be the starter? You're never sure of that. And we had a good player in Niko Koutouvides, who played last year as a rookie. . . . Those guys were right there battling in training camp, and Lofa just kept getting better and better."
The Seahawks, in fact, have reached the Super Bowl with two rookies starting at linebacker. Leroy Hill, a third-round draft choice out of Clemson, starts at one outside linebacker spot. The Seahawks ranked only 17th in the NFL in total defense (based on yards allowed) during the regular season. But they ranked seventh in scoring defense, and that was plenty good enough to complement the revved-up offense.
"We'll have our time," Tatupu said. "Defenses win championships. We had a part in this run here. We have no problem playing second fiddle to an offense like ours."
Holmgren certainly isn't complaining, not after watching his team's defense struggle mightily during most of his tenure in Seattle. It was one of the main reasons that the club failed to manage a postseason victory in Holmgren's first six seasons, and the offensive-minded head coach credits the defensive upgrade orchestrated by Rhodes and Marshall, with help from Tatupu, for getting the team into this game.
"One thing I was not able to do until this last year was to get some real leadership on defense to hold that particular side of the ball together," Holmgren said. "In my particular style, I hire a defensive coordinator and I don't mess with him too much. They have a job to do. They are good guys, and I let them do their jobs. While we had some good players, we were not getting that type of leadership we needed, in my opinion. It took us a long time -- some might say too long -- to get that together. Now that's together."