- The Washington Times - Friday, January 13, 2006

KIRKLAND, Wash. — Offensively, the Seattle Seahawks are a team of knowns — known names and known numbers.

League MVP Shaun Alexander owns the single-season touchdown record (28), and quarterback Matt Hasselbeck directs the league’s highest-scoring offense (28.3 points a game).

But explosive scoring alone does not a 13-3 team make.

Opposite such sizzling exploits, Seattle’s defense has harassed opposing quarterbacks, cut down high-powered scoring machines and mired in obscurity.

Far less known: The Seahawks’ pass rush has produced a league-leading 50 sacks, and Seattle ranks third in the NFC for fewest points allowed a game.

Such numbers represent this season’s most tangible difference from the Seahawks of a year ago, an underwhelming 9-7 team bounced from the playoffs in the opening round.

“We’re in the top 10 in a lot of statistics,” said Leroy Hill, one of two rookie linebackers starting for Seattle. “But we’re still hungry. We’ve got a lot of no-names, so we’re building names for ourselves.”

More than mere statistical improvement, the Seahawks’ unheralded and overshadowed defense has been the deciding factor in several victories.

Clinging to a three-point lead late in the fourth quarter of their home-opener against Atlanta, the Seahawks corralled Michael Vick for a third-down sack. A subsequent fourth-down pass deflection preserved the victory.

Five weeks later against Dallas, Seahawks defensive back Jordan Babineaux intercepted Drew Bledsoe with 10 seconds left and raced 32 yards to set up a game-winning field goal.

The fourth quarter drama continued Dec. 18 in Nashville when the Seahawks piled atop rusher Chris Brown to stuff the Titans’ fourth-and-1 attempt 7 yards away from what might have been a game-sealing score. Seattle’s ensuing 93-yard drive produced the go-ahead touchdown.

“We had a lot of new faces on this team, and luckily it didn’t take a whole season to come together,” said rookie linebacker Lofa Tatupu, the Seahawks’ leading tackler. “It’s a system of interchangeable parts. We lost a lot of good guys along the way and just replaced them.”

Starters Ken Hamlin, Andre Dyson and Jamie Sharper are among those to have missed significant portions of the season with injuries. Hamlin fractured his skull in a fight outside a Seattle nightclub following the Seahawks victory over Houston on Oct.16.

Physical ailment stretched into the ranks of the defensive coaching staff as well, with coordinator Ray Rhodes suffering a stroke and then having more stroke-like symptoms. Rhodes was forced to relinquish his full-time duties to acting defensive coordinator John Marshall.

But amid such changing personnel, Seattle’s defense grew stronger. The Seahawks’ 42-0 victory at Philadelphia on Dec.5 on “Monday Night Football” began a nine-quarter stretch in which they did not allow a touchdown.

“We’re never where we want to be, because there’s always something to improve on,” free safety Marquand Manuel said. “That’s the plus about playing with young guys. They’re always trying to get better.”

The Seahawks’ starting defensive unit boasts four players in their first or second years in the league. The two rookies, Hill and Tatupu, have morphed over the season from glaring symbols of inferior linebacker depth to pillars of strength and consistency.

Tatupu, drafted in the second round out of Southern Cal, has collected 104 tackles, four sacks and three interceptions, returning one pick 38 yards for a score. Hill, a late third-round pick from Clemson, ranks fourth on the team with 72 tackles and third with 71/2 sacks.

“After 20 plus games [including preseason], they’re a long ways from rookies,” Manuel said.

But a measure of NFL game experience hardly assuages the first-time, postseason jitters. Despite the Seahawks’ presence in the playoffs the past two years, eight players dotting the defensive depth chart are in their first postseasons.

“Everything is just stepped up a level,” Hill said of the preparation for tomorrow’s game with Washington. “I’m acting like a vet and trying to prepare like a vet, but when it all comes down to it, I’m still a rookie.”

Seahawks coach Mike Holmgren won’t ask his young players to feel like veterans — just to play like them.

“To tell Lofa Tatupu, ‘Act like you’ve been there,’ he hasn’t been there,” Holmgren said. “I can’t be a phony, and they need to be themselves.”

Tatupu was himself at practice Tuesday, closing to defend a deep pass down the seam with no safety help over the top. The 5-foot-11, 238-pound aggressor laid out to deflect the ball as shouts of “Tatupu!” echoed throughout the white canvas practice tent.

Saturday’s challenge: Redskins 1,500-yard runner Clinton Portis, to whom the Seahawks surrendered 90 yards on 25 carries during an Oct. 2 overtime loss in Washington.

“Stopping the run, a lot of it is want to,” Tatupu said. “I’d like to think I’m starting to get the hang of things.”

So too for the entire Seahawks defense, which allowed the fifth fewest rushing yards in the league this season — not that statistics tell the story.

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