More Robinson: Seahawks season preview
CHENEY, Wash. – In many ways, the highlight reel has long been a dishonest advocate for the secondary of the Seattle Seahawks.
For the last two years, the public has been tantalized by earth-shifting hits and exploding limbs. We watched safety Ken Hamlin blow up wide receivers in the middle of the field, and we gasped as safety Michael Boulware knocked the block (and helmet) off New England quarterback Tom Brady.
Seattle's defensive backs became the stuff of cinema, as if action directors John Woo or Michael Bay were on the team's payroll. But like a Hollywood trailer that packs every highlight into a 30-second trailer, time revealed Seattle's secondary to be a boiled-down snippet of manufactured greatness.
And when 2004 had come and gone, no unit was more emblematic of what the Seahawks became last season: long on expectations and short on greatness.
"You want to be around the top of the league with what you do," Seattle cornerback Marcus Trufant said. "You never want to be on the tail end of things, and we knew that's where we were. … The hitting people and flying around – that's how we want to come out and play. But not just at the beginning. The goal now is to come out and play physical at the start, and then carry that over into the middle and end of the season."
The funny thing about youth in the NFL is that it gets far more patience than it deserves. That is why the Seahawks' secondary still holds a healthy lease on potential and should once again be expected to develop into one of the league's best units.
We heard that last season, when the Seattle defense started strong against the pass and then slowly receded to 23rd in the league (224.4 passing yards per game). But the Seahawks were victimized by other defensive problems in 2004, including injuries in the linebacking corps and an inconsistent pass rush.
A deeper look into last season's statistics and the group's complexion reveals a handful of reasons why Seattle's defensive backs could be on the verge of fulfilling all of the highlight hype.
Despite their low ranking against the pass, only Carolina and Buffalo had more interceptions than the Seahawks' 23 last year. And the bulk of Seattle's picks came from defensive backs, with only linebacker Anthony Simmons and defensive end Antonio Cochran contributing one interception each.
While No. 2 cornerback Ken Lucas was lost via free agency, Seahawks general manager Tim Ruskell may have actually strengthened the core by letting Lucas go. Rather than dole out the absurd money Lucas got in free agency, Ruskell used that cash to sign two starting-quality defensive backs – Andre Dyson from Tennessee and Kelly Herndon from Denver. With Trufant, the Seahawks now have three starting-quality cornerbacks, with the odd man out becoming a solid nickel back to provide superb depth.
If Dyson earns the No. 2 spot across from Trufant, the age of the starters will be mind-boggling: 24 (Trufant), 26 (Dyson), 23 (Boulware) and 24 (Hamlin). Trufant and Boulware have Pro Bowl talent, and are still getting better.
"[The defensive backfield] reminds me a lot of how things were the first few years I was in Tennessee," Dyson said, referring to when he and Pro Bowlers Samari Rolle and Lance Schulters formed one of the league's most stout secondaries.
"There was a lot of talent, but we were young and it was taking time for everyone to get on the right page. The first year there were a lot of mistakes, a lot of missed assignments and miscommunication and stuff like that. But once we all got used to each other, by the middle of my second season, we really started to click. Then things got really good.
"It's hard to tell when that will happen here, because we've got to get some things straight. I haven't even played with Hammer (Hamlin) yet, so there are still some things we have to accomplish to get used to each other."
For now, the secondary is only a small sliver of the questions that have to be answered for Seattle. Not that that's anything new. As much as the defense was criticized last season, other issues always seemed to loom larger – and that may have been an odd benefit. Whether it was offensive tackle Walter Jones' annual holdout to begin the season or the trade for Jerry Rice or the unfortunate meltdown suffered by Koren Robinson, concerns with the secondary were typically an afterthought.
Even in the worst times, when the unit was either partially or overwhelmingly responsible for the season's two biggest debacles – a 33-27 overtime loss to St. Louis and a 43-39 Monday night loss to Dallas – some other drama kept it from insufferable criticism. The secondary's struggles always seemed to rise to the surface at the worst times, particularly against the Rams, a division rival that beat Seattle three times last season. In those three wins, St. Louis quarterback Marc Bulger averaged 300 passing yards and commonly preyed on the Seahawks' inexperience.
"Obviously, we know we have some more to do to get to being one of the best groups," Hamlin said. "There were times last season when we could all see that. … But I think we're right around the corner from what we can be."
Hamlin may ultimately be the glue that brings the group together. Universally regarded as the group's most vocal leader, he's still recovering from shoulder surgery and may not see his first action of the preseason until next week against Kansas City.
While Trufant and Boulware have received more praise for their talent, it's Hamlin who has been an emotional barometer. As a rookie in 2003, he established himself as a highlight-reel regular – the kind of player who, as Dyson put it, "was always on the TV knocking somebody out."
Hamlin is sometimes criticized in league circles for taking risks and being a headhunter who goes for big hits rather than safe tackles. But he's also praised by his teammates for having the kind of explosive "flying around" persona that could eventually make Seattle's secondary special.
"It's like a domino effect," Hamlin said. "I go in there and I show I'm not afraid to put my life on the line to make a play. Other guys see that, and even if they're not known for that kind of stuff, they get excited and they want to show that they aren't afraid to hit somebody hard, either. Pretty soon everyone is doing it."
"When we get physical like that, we know we can change the tempo of the game," Trufant said. "That's the identity we want to have – that we can change the game.
"It's not just about highlights."