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Seahawk defense unflappable

We have seen the full spectrum of ''lack of respect" themes the past few years, from the memorable and effective one used in the Patriots' first Super Bowl run to the half-baked version Tom Brady and Bill Belichick tried to concoct prior to the Patriots going down in flames to Denver in the playoffs.

The Patriots aren't alone, of course.

The Pittsburgh Steelers have used it through the playoffs as a sixth seed winning three road playoff games, but they are 4-point favorites in Super Bowl XL.

The lack of respect theme may fit the Seattle Seahawks -- especially their defense -- best. They have used it conservatively though it might escalate once the teams get to Detroit early next week.

When you think of the Seahawks you think of league MVP running back Shaun Alexander, quarterback Matt Hasselbeck, and a pretty good offensive mind in coach Mike Holmgren, who has a chance to become the first coach to win a Super Bowl with two teams.

The Seahawks' defense, however, has also held up its end, even while flying under the radar. It garnered more respect after stuffing Steve Smith, Jake Delhomme, and the Panthers, 34-14, in the NFC title game. If the Seahawks can stop the multidimensional Steelers offense, they'll get their due.

This is a unit that lost defensive coordinator Ray Rhodes because of illness early in the season, and had to get their weekly marching orders from John Marshall, the veteran linebackers coach. Marshall has been able to incorporate two rookie linebackers -- Lofa Tatupu and Leroy Hill -- into the defense and excel doing it. He's been able to get the defense to play selfless and unified, almost Patriot-like.

''I think what happened," said Seahawks defensive end Grant Wistrom, the former St. Louis Ram and Nebraska star, ''is that guys started out in training camp feeling like if they didn't start, they were going to be ready to be starters if something happened to the guys in front of them. So often teams don't make it through the season because they have so many injuries and they can't overcome them."

Wistrom also gives credit to Tatupu for being to able to step in and become an instant leader. Tatupu, runner-up for defensive rookie of the year to San Diego linebacker Shawne Merriman, and a recent addition to the Pro Bowl squad, has brought a reckless enthusiasm to the defense that Wistrom said has been contagious.

''When I saw Lofa early in minicamp I knew we were going to be good. Just having a guy out there who can line you up right and provide confidence on the field I think was very important and we had that right from the start," Wistrom said.

Tatupu, who has gone from back-to-back national championships at Southern California to the Super Bowl, was cleared to practice yesterday after sitting out Wednesday's practice. He was recovering from a mild concussion suffered in a first-quarter collision last Sunday with Carolina running back Nick Goings, who was forced out of the game. Tatupu managed to play most of the rest of the way, but said he doesn't remember much after the collision.

''I feel fine [now]," he said. ''That's just part of the game."

The Seahawks led the league in sacks (50), allowed only one 100-yard rusher in the regular season (Giants running back Tiki Barber in Week 12), and allowed only five rushing touchdowns, second-fewest in the NFL. Eleven players accumulated the sacks, 32 1/2 of them by defensive linemen, 11 1/2 from the two rookie linebackers, 3 from defensive backs, and 3 were team sacks.

Still, the Seahawks are underdogs, despite finishing 13-3, earning the top seed in the NFC, and turning in a dominant performance through two playoff games.

''I just think it's better to sneak up on teams rather than have a bull's-eye on your chest," Wistrom said.

The Seahawks' under-hyped defensive line of Wistrom and Bryce Fisher at end, Rocky Bernard, and Chartric Darby at tackle, can stop the run and rush the passer as well as any front four in the league. The front guys keep Tatupu, Hill, and D.D. Lewis so clean the linebackers have been able to make plays all season.

Against Carolina, cornerbacks Andre Dyson and Marcus Trufant shut down Smith.

In two playoff games they held the Redskins' Mark Brunell and Delhomme to a 61.4 quarterback rating.

Now the question is what will Marshall do to offset a Pittsburgh offense that can not only run effectively with Jerome Bettis and Willie Parker, but also can throw it with Ben Roethlisberger going to receivers Hines Ward, Cedrick Wilson, and Antwaan Randle El, and tight end Heath Miller.

''Pittsburgh can beat you different ways so we have to be ready to stop them on different levels," said Trufant. ''Ben has a great way of eluding pressure and running and throwing well on the run. He's strong enough to make pinpoint throws when he's out of the pocket so our coverage has to be tight."

The Seahawks won't have an easy time.

The Steelers have won three straight road playoff games, the first team to do that since the 1985 Patriots. We know what happened that year. The Chicago Bears suffocated the Patriots, 46-10, in one of the most lopsided games in Super Bowl history.

The Seahawks' defense isn't quite at the level of that Bears defense, but when it has had to stop good offenses, it has.

Don't expect too much respect for the Seahawks in Detroit, but they aren't looking for any now. For a Seahawks defensive unit that really doesn't get a lot of respect, this is a fitting motivational theme just too good to pass up.

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