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Backup ’backers aren’t backing down
The linebacker played off the block, as if the defender was merely a tackling dummy, to drop the running back for a 1-yard loss.
On the very next play, the quarterback dumped the ball to a slot receiver from a spread formation, hoping to exploit what should have been an open middle of the field in a second-and-21 situation. But the middle linebacker was not fooled and dropped the receiver after just a 4-yard gain.
On another snap, yet a different linebacker read the play, as if he had been in the huddle, to plug the gap and stop the back for no gain.
All three plays were turned in during the Seahawks’ preseason victory over the Denver Broncos last Saturday night, and the quality of the efforts had the fingerprints of Leroy Hill, Lofa Tatupu and Aaron Curry all over them.
But the team’s starting trio wasn’t even on the field. The players producing these impressive plays were their backups – Will Herring, David Hawthorne and D.D. Lewis.
Each is reestablishing this summer that they can indeed play – along with fellow backup Lance Laury. Herring (nine), Hawthorne (seven) and Laury (six) rank 1-2-3 on the team in tackles after two preseason games.
“All these guys could be starting for a team out there,” Tatupu said Thursday, after the team’s final practice before Saturday night’s third preseason game against the Chiefs in Kansas City.
On this team, however, their contributions will be limited to special teams. Unless, that is, something happens to one of the starters, as it did last season when Hill missed the final four games with a neck injury and Tatupu was out for one game at midseason with a groin injury.
“That’s just the way it is,” Tatupu said. “Until their number is called, it’s a process, a waiting game.”
But, as linebackers coach Zerick Rollins put it, “They’re only a snap away from being a starter.”
That’s why these last two preseason games are so important to Herring, Hawthorne and Laury – and even Lewis. This is when they get their chance to show progress and earn the trust of their coaches and teammates.
“It’s very important, especially when you have some younger guys like Will Herring, Lance and ‘Heater,’ ” Rollins said, using the nickname Tatupu hung on Hawthorne last summer.
“Because once the season starts, they don’t get very many reps. So this is their time.”
With that said, here’s a closer look at the Seahawks’ backup ’backers:
D.D. Lewis – It was former linebacker Julian Peterson who referred to the starters at the 1’s, and Lewis as 1-a. The versatile veteran from Texas, who made the team as a rookie free agent in 2002, has started 20 games in his five seasons with the Seahawks – including 12 during the team’s run to the Super Bowl in 2005.
Not only has he stepped in for some of the best linebackers in franchise history – Chad Brown, Anthony Simmons, Hill and Tatupu – he has done it without the expected drop off.
Lewis had a career-high 11 tackles while subbing for Simmons in 2003, and a team-high 10 in the wild-card playoff loss to the Packers in Green Bay that season after stepping in for Brown. Last year, when he started for Tatupu, Lewis tied his career high with 11 tackles against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
“The last few years, D.D. has seen a lot action,” Tatupu said. “And that’s the thing with D.D., you give him a chance to play and he makes plays.”
“The most impressive, so far, has been Will Herring,” Tatupu said. “Not just the plays he’s been making, but we’ve put him almost in that D.D. Lewis mode: ‘Can you play all three spots for us in a jam?’”
Herring had five solo tackles in the preseason opener against the Chargers in San Diego and, as Tatupu put it, “(Herring) Didn’t get much credit for it.” Herring followed that performance with four solo tackles – three for losses – against the Broncos.
“To see him develop how he’s developed, that’s a great feeling as a coach because he’s come a long way,” Rollins said.
David Hawthorne – Like Lewis in ’02, the undersized middle linebacker from Texas Christian bludgeoned some long odds to make the team as a rookie free agent last year. He did it by dishing out those hits in the preseason that prompted Tatupu to start calling him “The Heater.”
“Any time you’ve got a guy like Lofa Tatupu in front of you to learn from, that’s been very beneficial for ‘Heater’ and he’s doing a good job of being a sponge and soaking it up,” Rollins said.
Both Tatupu and Hawthorne are learning some new tricks in the system being installed by first-year defensive coordinator Gus Bradley.
“It’s tough,” Tatupu said. “For my first four years, it was almost like seek-and-destroy. Just come downhill. But now, there are times when they ask us to disguise and hold the look long enough to give a safety a chance to make a read on whether it’s pass or run.”
So far, so good for Hawthorne.
“It’s good to see that he’s not trying to step out of the box or out of the scheme,” Tatupu said. “He’s letting the game come to him. He tended to chase some plays last year, but who could fault him when he gets those beautiful hits.
“We’ve seen a lot of splash hits out of him.”
Lance Laury – He shares more with Lewis and Hawthorne than a desire for playing time. Laury also made the team as a rookie free agent – in 2006 out of South Carolina. His contributions have been limited almost exclusively to special teams, and he has 42 coverage tackles in three seasons.
But Tatupu also sees some special traits in Laury, who was a special teams co-captain with Lewis last year.
“Lance is a special guy,” Tatupu said. “He’s a guy you’d just like to cut loose out there. He’s very active. You want to just let him out of the gate and say, ‘Go get ’em.’”
All four have progressed, and continue to do so when given opportunities to play. But enough that Rollins would turn to them, if needed?
“No question,” their position coach said. “And that’s the biggest thing when you have guys that are a little bit younger – like a David Hawthorne, like a Will Herring, like a Lance Laury. Those guys have made great progress.”
Tatupu doesn’t stop at Lewis, Herring, Hawthorne and Laury. He also likes what he’s seeing from the free-agent duo of Shane Simmons and Dave Philistin – a lot.
“These guys are fun to watch,” Tatupu said. “I love watching all of them play.”
Like Tatupu, you’d better enjoy watching them while you can.