Influx of newcomers have 'Hawks optimistic

8/26/2004 - Seattle Seahawks

CHENEY, Wash. -- Most teams take pride in their defense. You hear it all the time. In a moment of motivation, the coach stands in front of his team and shouts, "Let's play (state your team) defense." Players growl with excitement and attack.

Mike Holmgren wasn't afforded that legacy. The tradition of the Seahawks defense ranking in the bottom half of the league stats goes back some time -- well before Holmgren's hiring in '99. The arrival of Ray Rhodes improved the defense to 19th last year, and the hope is the additions made this offseason can put the Seahawks over the top.

"I think we built the offense very good," Holmgren said. "We have struggled to build a defense. Ray brings in continuity. Now, we're all on the same page. The older guys who are synonymous with Seahawks defense are pretty much gone."

This is Year 6 for Holmgren in Seattle. He has the offense where he wants it. Matt Hasselbeck has established himself as a Pro Bowl-caliber quarterback. He topped off last season by winning the Quarterback Challenge and did more for the team by leading the offseason conditioning program. The talent is in place to expect no less than a fifth- or sixth-best rating on offense.

But what about the defense? Will the additions of Grant Wistrom, Marcus Tubbs, Bobby Taylor and Michael Boulware be enough to give the Seahawks a chance to make a Super Bowl run?

Linebacker Chad Brown has seen schemes and players go since joining the team in 1997. He's always played at a high level. But in the end, the Seahawks defense usually languished toward the bottom of the league. Finally, Brown believes he can talk about Seahawks defense with a little pride.

"I'm almost afraid to say it," Brown said. "We've heard the campaigns of the past. We've heard 'It's Now Time (Holmgren's first year).' We've had this slogan and that slogan. I think we will be very good, but we've got to let our play talk."

The Seahawks know a top seven offense accompanied with a top 15 defense can be playoff worthy. They also know Super Bowl champs aren't crowned until their defense ranks among the league's best. It's tradition dating back to the mid 1980s.

Rhodes knows the value of defense. His résumé is filled with top 10 finishes on defense as either a coordinator or coach. Last year's 19th finish didn't satisfy him. Of course, Rhodes is never satisfied. Even a shutout has its flaws to him. He's a perfectionist. Still, he feels pretty good about how this defense is coming together.

"We're very thick inside with our defensive tackles," Rhodes said. "Overall, the competition is good. We've got to come together as a football team and get better on a daily basis. We have a lot of work ahead of us."

Perhaps the most interesting attitude is coming from Rhodes' boss, Holmgren. Normally, Holmgren is demanding to a point of being a tyrant. Ask Brett Favre and the Packers how much pressure he put on them to improve daily during their Super Bowl years.

However, he's handling this year's Seahawks with a little more patience as though this season is a marathon more than a sprint. In his days as general manager-coach, Holmgren snapped at free agents who didn't want to sign quick contracts as training camp started. Even though the development of Tubbs is vital to the defense, Holmgren showed amazing compassion toward the rookie.

Tubbs' mother was ill and Tubbs needed some time with her. Holmgren gave him the luxury of missing the first 10 days of practice before signing his contract. When Holmgren needed him, he gave him a date. Tubbs showed up and started his work. Not expected to play in the preseason opener, Tubbs talked himself into the lineup and collapsed the pocket once with one powerful rush.

The coach didn't push Wistrom to rush recovery of a plantar fascia problem in his foot. A sore knee by cornerback Taylor didn't cause Holmgren any panic. He seems to have a confidence about this defense in how it will come together. He likes the depth. He likes the mix of young and old players.

"I guess as a coach, you have two choices with the defense," Holmgren said. "You can plug with older guys or go with the enthusiasm of youth as long as you have good players and those players don't make mistakes."

For the first five years, Holmgren tried to patch things together. The classic example was four years ago when he brought in defensive tackles Chad Eaton and John Randle, middle linebacker Levon Kirkland and safety Marcus Robinson. The Seahawks got a one-year spike in being able to stop the run, but those older parts started to fade the next season.

Now, he's taking some chances on youth. He's relying on second-year defensive tackle Rashad Moore and Tubbs to anchor the middle of the line next to overachieving run-stopper Cedric Woodard. He's banking on former Florida State linebacker Boulware converting into the strong safety position, and if not, he's going with unproven Terreal Bierria.

Instead of picking up the phone and calling veterans Jeremiah Trotter or Charlie Clemons to patch the middle linebacker spot as he's done so often in Seattle, Holmgren is letting three young players -- Solomon Bates, Niko Koutovides and Orlando Huff -- fight it out and let youth be served.

"If you ask me who's going to be in the middle, I couldn't honestly tell you," Holmgren said. "It's an even competition. Those guys are talented but they haven't played very much. That guy, though, is only on the field on first downs this day and age. The guy who wins it will be the last man standing."

Wistrom adds an interesting perspective to the Seahawks defense. He comes to Seattle from the NFC West rival St. Louis Rams. Annually, the Rams rank among the best offense. When the defense jelled, the Rams went to Super Bowls. He likes what he sees for the talent base of the Seahawks defense.

"Right now, we show a lot of potential," Wistrom said. "Potential is an ugly word. I don't like the word potential. There are a lot of expectations for this defense. There is a lot of money in this defense. They drafted Tubbs and Boulware. They signed Bobby Taylor and myself to a great group of core players who were already here. We have a lot to prove right now."

The players like some of the aggressive things Rhodes wants to do with this defense.

"This is our second year with Ray," Brown said. "We've put in more packages. We've got a lot of guys who can run. Even our guys up front on the line can run. Ray's scheme is really not complex. He wants players in position to react naturally and run to the ball."

And executing those things would definitely lead to pride, as well as improve Seattle's shot of fighting for a Super Bowl berth.

Senior writer John Clayton covers the NFL for ESPN.com.