by Michael David Smith
Ask just about any NFL analyst why the Seattle Seahawks are in this weekend's NFC Championship game, and you'll hear about league MVP Shaun Alexander, quarterback Matt Hasselbeck, and a great offensive line.
But the Seahawks had all of those elements in place last year, when they turned in a mediocre season that concluded with a loss in the first round of the playoffs. The real reason Seattle has gone from playoff also-ran to championship contender is the improvement of the run defense. Seattle allowed 4.5 yards per rushing attempt last year but has allowed only 3.6 this year.
The personnel department deserves credit for the improvement -- Seattle made wholesale changes to its front seven, a unit on which only tackle Rocky Bernard started both last year's playoff loss to the Rams and last week's playoff win against the Redskins.
The most important personnel upgrade was in the middle, where Seattle drafted linebacker Lofa Tatupu in the second round and he has quickly developed into the most important player on the defense. An examination of Tatupu on every play of the Seahawks' 20-10 victory on Saturday shows that he is one of the league's most versatile linebackers, able not only to stop running backs, but also to rush the quarterback and drop into coverage.
Tatupu lasted into the middle of the second round of last year's draft largely because teams thought he was too small to be a middle linebacker (he's listed at 5-foot-11, 238 pounds, and is probably a little smaller than that). Some projections had him moving to strong safety in the NFL. Seattle wisely saw that his intelligence and athleticism were exactly what it needed at middle linebacker. The Seattle front office knew that, like Zach Thomas a decade earlier, Tatupu would be a steal because teams look too much at the yardstick and not enough at the game film.
Despite his size, Tatupu often sheds the blocks of bigger players. On a second-and-5 run, Washington's 6-foot-4, 260-pound tight end Robert Royal tried to block him, but Tatupu got past him to assist on the tackle on Clinton Portis for no gain. Tatupu's best play of the game came on the next play. On third-and-5, Tatupu's assignment was to drop into coverage and take away the Redskins' slot receiver. He did that well enough that Brunell didn't have anything open and tried to tuck the ball under his arm to run. As soon as Brunell crossed the line of scrimmage, Tatupu flew toward him and nailed him for a gain of only two yards. Even though Brunell is slow, few linebackers are fast enough to go from pass coverage to tackling the quarterback that quickly.
Shedding the block of a tight end is different from shedding the block of a guard, though, and Tatupu needs to learn when to fight through a blocker and when to go around him. On a first-and-10 Portis run, Washington guard Derrick Dockery pulled to the left and buried Tatupu, and Portis ran past him for four yards.
When Tatupu doesn't have to fight off blocks he gets from his spot at middle linebacker to the backfield in an instant. On a second-and-17 in the third quarter, defensive end Bryce Fisher knocked Royal back, clearing the path for Tatupu, who, along with Grant Wistrom, converged on Ladell Betts for a loss of three. (Fisher, incidentally, was quietly one of the league's best free-agent acquisitions, registering nine sacks in the regular season and adding one against Washington. His battle with Carolina right tackle Jordan Gross will be great.)
That came one play after Tatupu showed how well he plays the pass. On first-and-20, Santana Moss lined up split to the left, with Washington using motion in the other direction to try to draw coverage away. When Brunell threw a screen to Moss, Tatupu recognized it immediately, evaded the blocks of Washington linemen Derrick Dockery and Chris Samuels, and brought Moss down for a gain of three. Moss is one of the best receivers in the league at getting past defenders, but Tatupu didn't have any trouble with him.
Tatupu stays on the field even when the Seahawks go to their nickel package, but in some obvious passing situations he lines up as deep as 10 yards off the line of scrimmage, playing a hybrid safety-linebacker position. On most passes he covers the running backs, and he's excellent at that. On a first-and-10 late in the first half, Brunell tried a short pass to running back Ladell Betts, but Tatupu was right on top of him in coverage and tackled him for a two-yard gain.
Aside from his size, the other knock on Tatupu coming out of USC was that he is so aggressive that he often takes himself out of plays. There's some truth in that. On a fourth-and-2, Tatupu looked like he was trying to make a highlight-reel play and took a bad angle to the inside. When Portis ran to the outside, Redskins receiver Jimmy Farris needed only a glancing block to keep Tatupu away. Tatupu also can be beaten on play-action passes. On Washington's first play, Tatupu bit on a play-fake and took four steps toward Portis before he realized that Portis didn't have the ball. Those are undisciplined plays, but any team will gladly live with a few undisciplined plays from a rookie who adds as much value to the team as Tatupu does.
Tatupu clearly has a mastery of the Seahawks' defense. On nearly every play he barks out signals and tells the linemen in front of him to shift before the snap. It's rare for a rookie to have those responsibilities, but Tatupu's football background far exceeds that of most rookies. Tatupu's father, Mosi Tatupu, played 14 years in the NFL and was also Lofa's coach in high school, where Lofa played quarterback in addition to linebacker. After high school he spent a year playing at the University of Maine before sitting out a year and then transferring to USC.
The only recent linebacker to come in as a rookie and make such an immediate impact as a defensive signal-caller is Jonathan Vilma with the Jets last season. But Tatupu seems even more involved with all the facets of the defense than Vilma -- with his barking and gesticulations, Tatupu is almost like a linebacker version of Peyton Manning.
As the Panthers formulate their game plan, they should consider snapping the ball quickly after they line up, not giving Tatupu time to examine the formation and instruct his teammates. (That would also give Jake Delhomme less time to survey Seattle's defense, but Steve Smith is generally Delhomme's first option no matter how the defense lines up.) Rookie linebackers don't ordinarily force opposing offenses to radically change their game plans, but if Tatupu has shown anything this year, it's that he's no ordinary rookie.
Each week, Michael David Smith looks at one specific player or one aspect of a team on every single play of the previous game. Standard caveat applies: Yes, one game is not necessarily an indicator of performance over the entire season. If you have a player or a unit you would like tracked in Every Play Counts, suggest it by emailing mike-at-footballoutsiders.com.