Leading by example

Posted Dec 7, 2011

After missing 20 games the past two seasons because of injuries, Leroy Hill is back to being his old self and making plays as the weakside linebacker in the Seahawks' 14th-ranked defense.

Pete Carroll had just spent almost two chilly hours on the practice field during a bonus workout for this team, but a warm smile washed across the face of the Seahawks coach when the subject turned to Leroy Hill during Carroll’s post-practice interview session.

“Leroy has really been solid,” Carroll said as Tuesday afternoon was quickly becoming Tuesday evening. “He’s a real tough-minded guy and an aggressive guy that brings good attitude. He’s been very settling to the changes and so many young guys playing on the defensive side.

“He’s always stood for the classic tough-guy mentality that we love and he’s had really, really good season.”

Tough guy? Obviously. Just look at the way Hill has been leveling ball carriers from the weakside linebacker spot to get his 75 tackles, which rank third on the team behind middle linebacker David Hawthorne (78) and free safety Earl Thomas (76); and chasing down quarterbacks to get his three sacks, which are second on the team to end Chris Clemons (eight).

A splash of needed experience on an inexperienced defense that features five first-year starters and three others who are second-year starters? Yeah, that too. Hill, a third-round draft choice in 2005, is the longest-tenured Seahawk on the 53-man roster. His 73 career starts are eight more than the next-highest total on the defense (65 by nose tackle Brandon Mebane) and only 30 fewer than the combined total of the other six players who comprise the Seahawks’ secondary and linebacking crew.

But solid and settling? Those are not words that have been used to describe Hill the past two seasons, when he missed four games in 2009 with a groin injury, played in only one game last season because of an Achilles injury and also served a one-game suspension.

“We’ve only seen Leroy play one way,” Hawthorne said. “When he’s playing, he’s playing. When he’s not, the off-the-field stuff has nothing to do with what you do on the field. And whenever Leroy has been on the field, he’s been making plays and just being himself.”

And that is just the point, or at least the one Hill stresses: He is not only playing well again, he’s having fun doing it.

“The season is going pretty well,” Hill said. “I’m healthy. I’m happy. That’s all that matters. Football is going to be football, regardless. And a player is going to be the player he is. So I feel this season is pretty comparable to rest of my seasons.”

But this has been a season of surprising, and even unexpected, events for Hill – starting with the team re-signing him in free agency. Then, Lofa Tatupu was releasing, opening a starting spot on the weak side for Hill because David Hawthorne moved inside the replace Tatupu. Then, Aaron Curry, the No. 4 pick overall in the 2009 NFL Draft, was traded to the Oakland Raiders, with rookie K.J. Wright stepping in for him.

“This season means more, because I didn’t have football at all and it was tough,” Hill said. “It’s that old thing where you don’t know how much you miss it until you haven’t got it. Then, you miss it even more when you know you can still play.”

So here Hill is, a leader on an improved and improving defense – on and off the field; from the locker room on the first floor of Virginia Mason Athletic Center to the coaches’ offices on the second floor.

“It’s been very settling to have him,” Carroll said. “He’s been a real confidence factor for our guys because he’s the real deal. He’s a hard-nosed, tough man and it’s good for the young guys to see how he is.

“He’s just been rock-solid, consistent throughout.”

Carroll and the rest of the defense leaned on Hill while the team was starting 2-6, because he had been there before and realized the best way to deal with the situation is to not dwell on the immediate past but push onward to a better present and future.

The Seahawks have done just that, with a 3-1 surge to open the second half of their season as they prepare for Monday night’s game against the St. Louis Rams at CenturyLink Field.

“I see so much talent on this team,” Hill said. “We’ve still got a long way to go, but you can definitely see the improvement over time. With youth, it’s always going to take time.”

And the Seahawks are, if nothing else, young. And they’ve experienced growing pains – like upsetting the New York Giants one week, only to lose to the Cleveland Browns two weeks later; like upsetting the Baltimore Ravens one week, only to lose to the Washington Redskins two weeks later.

“That’s exactly what I’m saying,” Hill said. “Those are two games we should have had. Those are games that veteran teams win; that good teams learn to win. You can’t drop games like that.

“But it’s coming, and it seems to be coming quick.”

Hill’s season also started slowly, with three tackles in the first two games. But he exploded with an 11-tackle effort in the Week 3 win over the Arizona Cardinals that included a sack and a forced fumble. Since then, Hill has been one of the metronome players who sets the tempo for the Seahawks’ aggressive defense: nine tackles against the Atlanta Falcons; eight each against the Giants and Browns; five and six against the Cincinnati Bengals and Dallas Cowboys; two more eight-tackle outings against the Ravens and Redskins sandwiched around a three-tackle, one-sack game against the Rams; and six more tackles and his third sack in Thursday night’s 31-14 victory over the Philadelphia Eagles.

Hill has led the team in tackles, or shared the lead, five times. The next highest are Hawthorne and Thomas, with three each.

“Leroy is just back to being himself,” said Hawthorne, who can remember the Leroy Hill who had 81 tackles in 2008, if not the Leroy Hill who registered 7½ sacks as rookie or a career-high 92 tackles in 2006.

“He’s running around, making plays, flying sideline to sideline and just bringing energy. But I think above all, it’s the experience and leadership he’s bringing that has been his most valuable contribution. Guys know what he brings to the table and that he’s been through it before.”

Hawthorne then smiled before adding, “Leroy is kind of like the person who keeps it all together back there. I don’t know where we’d be without him.”

And Carroll is glad he didn’t have to find out.