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Originally published Monday, September 26, 2005 at 12:00 AM

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Steve Kelley

Hawks "D" breaking bread — and opposing offenses — together

Every Thursday night, the defensive line, and other invited defensive guests, gather at a fortunate restaurant in Bellevue or Kirkland...

Seattle Times staff columnist

Every Thursday night, the defensive line, and other invited defensive guests, gather at a fortunate restaurant in Bellevue or Kirkland, run up an astronomical tab, and get to know each other better.

Over the football staples — steaks and baked potatoes and beers — they tell lies about their college days and swap stories about high-school glories and get to know each other better.

The idea of these Thursday-night bites was a collaborative effort between newcomer tackle Chuck Darby and end Grant Wistrom, a second-year Seahawk. They believed these Thursday sessions could help the players grow close, maybe even clear the cloud of selfishness and self-doubt that hung over the defense for the second half of last season.

"We tried it to do this a couple of years ago," Seahawks defensive tackle Rocky Bernard said yesterday. "I think the last couple of years we slipped away from that, and you could tell the mood of the group wasn't really the same.

"Chuck and Grant really worry about stuff like that because they're team guys, and it's working out really well for everybody now. I'm not trying to be selfish, but the difference this year is everybody's really working together."

What do you think of this defense now, Chike?

After he left the Seahawks for Arizona in the offseason, defensive end Chike Okeafor was critical of his former teammates. He said they didn't play together. Said they pointed fingers.

But that was a much different team. That was before team president Tim Ruskell brought in Darby from Tampa Bay and Bryce Fisher from St. Louis. Before he signed Jamie Sharper from Houston and Joe Tafoya from Atlanta and Andre Dyson from Tennessee and Kelly Herndon from Denver.

It was before the Seahawks changed the personnel and changed the attitude.

No matter which statue-like quarterback the Cardinals used yesterday — Kurt Warner or Josh McCown — the new Seahawks defense brought him down. They were toppled by Michael Boulware on a blitz, or Fisher on a quick loop around the tackle, or a hard hit by rookie linebacker Leroy Hill.

The Seahawks beat the Cardinals 37-12 yesterday, and they beat the Cardinals up.

It's early and we've been fooled before, but this defense has better athletes, better tacklers and much better blitzers. A defense that has had more work done to it than Joan Rivers might finally have found a combination that works.

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"There's no question we're playing better team defense," Wistrom said. "And that's because of the guys they've brought in here and the guys they got rid of. It's a lot of fun again. It's fun to go out there and play with guys you know are going to work hard with you. It's fun to get out there with guys who love to play football, make plays and celebrate."

Last year, as the defense blew lead after lead, as it gave up an alarming amount of big plays, its confidence leaked like a pinpricked balloon. The togetherness disappeared. The finger-pointing started. By the end of the season, the Hawks' defense couldn't stop a cold.

"Chike spoke his mind, and there might have been some truth," Wistrom said. "But I'm not going to make anything more out of it than that. This is definitely a better defense than what was here last year. It's a better team than was here last year."

In the second quarter Fisher engulfed Warner on third-and-nine. And Darby hit Warner a split second after Warner handed the ball off and J.J. Arrington didn't gain a yard. And Darby and Tubbs interrupted Warner's rhythm, clubbing him just as he released an incompletion.

This defense is getting to the quarterbacks. This team is flying into the backfield. It held an admittedly bad Cardinals offense to 266 total yards and kept Arizona out of the end zone.

"We play hard and we hit hard," Fisher said. "We get paid to hit people. That's the way it works. But we still haven't scratched the surface. We have to play at that level that Tampa Bay played at year in and year out. And Baltimore. That's the level we want to be."

It starts with talented players who know each other and trust each other. It starts with a group of guys who don't flee the facility after practice like convicts on a jailbreak. It starts with a better attitude.

"Trying to do something like Thursday night last year wouldn't have worked, because guys were on their own page and had their own agendas," Wistrom said. "But this year everybody is playing together for the team.

"Those Thursday nights just build chemistry. When we were in St. Louis and we had good teams, we were all hanging out together off the field. We played hard off the field and we played hard on the field."

Their Thursday-night dinner tab, which sometimes pushes well past $500, might say one thing. This Seahawks defense is hungry again.

What do you think of them now, Chike?

Steve Kelley: 206-464-2176 or skelley@seattletimes.com. More columns at www.seattletimes.com/columnists

The best defense
The Seahawks' defensive numbers after three games:
Opponent Rush Pass Total
at Jacksonville 119 243 362
vs. Atlanta 115 108 223
vs. Arizona 90 176 266

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About Steve Kelley

Steve Kelley covers all sports, putting his spin on matters involving both the home team and the nation.
skelley@seattletimes.com | 206-464-2176

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