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Still the Heater
If Pete Carroll has said it once, he’s said it at least once a month since being hired as the Seahawks’ coach in January: Lofa Tatupu sees things on the field that others don’t.
Right on cue, the team’s instinctive – not to mention productive – middle linebacker has offered a different perspective on the first of two interceptions turned in by rookie free safety Earl Thomas in Sunday’s victory over the San Diego Chargers.
“No one really gives the credit where it’s due, but that was all set up by ‘Heater,’ ” Tatupu said.
That would be David Hawthorne, the team’s weak-side linebacker. Or, simply “Heater” – a nickname Tatupu tagged Hawthorne with during his rookie training camp in 2008 because of the way he was heating things up with his physical style; and one that has stuck to the point where it has become the name everyone uses when discussing Hawthorne.
And Hawthorne continues to be a topic of – and for – discussion because he is continuing to make plays, and heat things up. In a new role. Last season, Hawthorne stepped in for an injured Tatupu and led the team in tackles (116), shared the lead in interceptions (three) and was third in sacks (four). This season, he has moved to the weak side to replace Leroy Hill.
Entering this week’s game against the Rams in St. Louis, Hawthorne is third on the team with 15 tackles and also has forced a fumble and broken up two passes.
But his best play was the one Tatupu mentioned. It came on the sixth play of the fourth quarter. The Chargers had a first down at their 28-yard line. The Seahawks had a 17-12 lead. The Chargers also were in a personnel package and formation that usually dictates a running play, so the Seahawks were in a run blitz.
When the Chargers shifted to a different look, Hawthorne was expecting Tatupu to check out of the run blitz.
“I didn’t reload it because I wanted our blitz coming off the edge,” Tatupu said.
That also meant Hawthorne was responsible for covering Antonio Gates, the Chargers’ Pro Bowl tight end who would catch seven passes for 109 yards and a touchdown in the game.
“ ‘Heater’ looks at me and points to Gates,” Tatupu said, breaking into a smile as he recounted their pre-snap exchange. “I go, ‘That’s you, kid.’
“So ‘Heater’ goes over there and I’m talking shadows him. If the ball is thrown were it should have been, it’s an interception. But instead, it’s thrown just out of his reach – great pass by (Chargers QB Philip) Rivers. But Gates tips it up, so it was picked.”
Because Hawthorne’s coverage forced Rivers to redirect his throw.
Just another indication of how valuable a “find” he has been. Remember, Hawthorne was not drafted. The Seahawks signed him as a rookie free agent, but he continues to make plays like a first-round draft choice.
Last season, Hawthorne was at least in his comfort zone because he had been a middle linebacker at TCU and also during his senior season at Corsicana (Texas) High School. The weak side? Not so much. But when Hill was unavailable during the spring minicamps and OTA practices, the coaches turned to their best option – although Hawthorne still got some reps at middle linebacker while Tatupu was completing his rehab from the pectoral surgery that ended his 2009 season.
“To change gears like that mentally, that’s a grind,” Tatupu said. “It’s not something many people are accustomed to doing. It’s tough to stay in that mode and not to be playing slow. Which he never was. We’re fortunate to have a guy like him.”
Defensive coordinator Gus Bradley can only second that opinion, and also echo what Carroll has been saying about Tatupu.
“ ‘Heater’ has done a nice job,” Bradley said. “But there’s no doubt that having Lofa out there makes everybody better in the linebacker corps.”
Linebackers coach Ken Norton, Jr. also deserves to take a bow for Hawthorne being prepared to step in on the weak side when needed. When the former Pro Bowl linebacker arrived along with Carroll, Norton stressed the importance of the ’backers being able to play more than one spot.
“And that’s a little bit out of my characteristic,” said Bradley, who came to the Seahawks last year after three seasons with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. “When I was at Tampa, Derrick Brooks, he just played WILL (weak-side linebacker) and that’s it.
“Kenny just felt like, ‘Let’s try to get the guys on the field that are our best players.’ Now, look at our linebacking corps. We’re not big in numbers, but we have flexibility because they play multiple positions.”
Hawthorne has become a contortionist in displaying his flexibility, and it carries over to the way he takes compliments – just like he takes on blockers, or even an unorthodox and unexpected assignment.
“I’d never played in a real game-like situation at Will until the first game of the season,” Hawthorne said. “But it’s coming along. It’s just like the Mike (middle). You get in there and the first couple of games everything is new to you. Then you start seeing looks that you’ve seen before and it just becomes easier.”
The play everyone noticed on Sunday was Hawthorne getting his helmet on the ball in textbook fashion to force a fumble that was recovered by defensive end Red Bryant after the Chargers had reached the Seahawks’ 12-yard line in the second quarter.
“We have a philosophy that we’re going to define ourselves by takeaways, and how many times we can give the offense back the ball,” he said. “So every takeaway we got was a good moment for us because we feel like that’s how we’re defining ourselves.”
For Hawthorne, that includes the one he helped the defense get as well as the one he forced.
“He’s a beast,” Tatupu said. “Plain and simple.”