Lofa Tatupu remembers his first regular season game at Qwest Field – the glint of sunlight as he charged through the end zone tunnel, the rubberized smell of the FieldTurf, the gentle hum of the crowd.
"We were out there on defense, and it was relatively quiet," the Seattle Seahawks' Pro Bowl middle linebacker recalls of the 2005 home opener against the Atlanta Falcons. "We'd make a play, and it was like 'clap-clap-clap.' I looked around thinking, 'What's up?' Then, late in the season, we played the Giants, and I don't know what took over the fans, but it's been crazy ever since. It truly is the loudest stadium, and in the playoffs, it just gets louder."
Qwest will be at its cacophonous best Saturday when the NFC West-champion Seahawks host the Washington Redskins in a first-round playoff game. And while the home team boasts its usual share of offensive stars, from Pro Bowl quarterback Matt Hasselbeck to unparalleled left tackle Walter Jones and former league MVP halfback Shaun Alexander, Tatupu and his fellow defenders will inspire the most rabid roars.
Quietly, unexpectedly, the Seahawks have become a team driven by its defense – a season-ending 44-41 defeat to the lowly Atlanta Falcons notwithstanding. Seattle, which had already secured the No. 3 playoff seed, ranked fifth in the NFL in points allowed before that throwaway game.
More conspicuously, the Hawks landed four starters on the NFC's 2008 Pro Bowl team: Tatupu, outside linebacker Julian Peterson, defensive end Patrick Kerney and cornerback Marcus Trufant. No other team had as many defensive players selected.
"We know a lot of people are upset about that," Tatupu said. "Hey, we're sorry. We've got a bunch of hunting dogs out there. And contrary to a lot of people's belief, we are a good football team."
Whether the Seahawks are as good as they were in 2005, when they rolled to their first Super Bowl appearance, or even '06, when they battled the eventual NFC champion Chicago Bears into overtime before losing in a divisional-round playoff game, has yet to be determined. This much, however, is known about the '07 team: Though head coach Mike Holmgren is a renowned offensive strategist and Hasselbeck is a vocal and popular locker-room leader, the Hawks have experienced a discernible tilt toward the defensive side of the ball.
Consider that two years ago, no Seahawks defenders were voted to the Pro Bowl during that conference championship campaign, though Tatupu went to Hawaii as an injury replacement for the Bears' Brian Urlacher.
"As a whole, our defense is head and shoulders above anything we've had in the past," says 12th-year wideout Bobby Engram, who joined the team in 2001.
Hasselbeck says he feels less prone to taking drive-sustaining risks than in years past because he's confident that the defense can hold up its end. "Before I might say, 'Hey, let's take some chances,'" he says. "It's easier now to do things the way Mike (Holmgren) wants me to do them."
Holmgren oversaw an extreme makeover of his defense, which has swapped out six of 11 starters from '06. Two holdovers, defensive end Darryl Tapp and cornerback Kelly Jennings, were elevated to starting roles; defensive tackle Brandon Mebane, a third-round pick from Cal, took over after Chuck Darby went down with a season-ending knee injury in October; and Kerney (Falcons) and safeties Deon Grant (Jaguars) and Brian Russell (Browns) were signed as free agents.
The steadying presence of savvy veterans Grant and Russell in the secondary has allowed Trufant, the 11th overall pick in the 2003 NFL draft, to realize his vast potential. He had seven interceptions and 15 passes defensed in a breakout campaign.
The secondary has also benefited from the addition of former Falcons coach Jimmy Mora as assistant head coach/defensive backs. Mora has helped install some exotic blitz packages for coordinator John Marshall's scheme. In addition, linebackers Tatupu and Leroy Hill, both fierce hitters, have room to roam behind an energized defensive line, and Kerney and Peterson have thrived as bookend pass rushers over the past two months.
Kerney, a relentless pass rusher, shook off a slow statistical start with a dominant second-half burst that at one point included three-sack efforts in three out of four games. He finished with an NFC-best 14½ sacks, one behind NFL leader Jared Allen of the Chiefs. "The guy's a machine," Tatupu says. "He has such a strict training regimen, and he might be crazier than I am out there."
He's also quite practical. Upon learning of his Pro Bowl selection, Kerney decided to pay for the team's other veteran defensive linemen to join him in Hawaii. As for Mebane, Kerney says, "I'm going to buy him a muni bond and some personal finance books."
Like Tatupu, Kerney is cognizant of the discrepancy in the team's defensive rankings – Seattle is tied for sixth in scoring defense (18.2 points per game) but is 15th in yards allowed (321.8). "That's because of the playmaking ability so many guys have on this defense," Kerney says. "Teams are moving the ball on us, but guys are causing fumbles and making picks and doing the things that stymie drives."
And that once tame crowd? As of Dec. 9, opponents had been called for 69 false starts at Qwest over the past three seasons, far more than any other stadium during that stretch. Eleven of those were committed by the Giants during that 2005 game that Tatupu so vividly recalls as the fans' coming-out party.
Since that game, Tatupu says he has semi-regularly lost his voice from screaming out defensive signals to teammates over the insanely loud crowd, a process that has become increasingly futile.
"We've got to go into games knowing what our shifts are against various formations," Kerney says, "because if Eddie Vedder was out there screaming at the top of his lungs, we still wouldn't be able to hear the signals."
If a Super Bowl encore is forthcoming, the Seahawks' defense will take the lead.