After leading the Seahawks in tackles as the middle linebacker last season, David Hawthorne has moved to the weak side – but he still leads the team after collecting 53 tackles in the past five games.
In the Seahawks’ first seven games, David Hawthorne had 26 tackles. In the past five, he has 53.
What gives? What has allowed the player his teammates and coaches call “Heater” to become twice as productive, plus?
“ ‘Heater’ is back to playing like he did last year, when he had such good games,” defensive coordinator Gus Bradley said Friday after practice. “He’s really instinctive, and really has a good feel for the package. You can tell with his play on the field.”
Entering Sunday’s need-to-win game against the 49ers in San Francisco, Hawthorne paces the defense with 79 tackles in his personal quest to be the team’s leading tackler for the second consecutive season and his bigger-picture goal of helping lead the Seahawks to the playoffs for the first time since 2007 – the season before Hawthorne made the roster as an undrafted rookie out of TCU.
Hawthorne has had off-the-charts production in four of the past five games from the weak-side linebacker spot: 12 tackles against the New York Giants; 12 more against the New Orleans Saints; 13 against the Kansas City Chiefs; 14 in last week’s win over the Carolina Panthers.
Or was it 14? “I think they cheated him on some of his tackles,” middle linebacker Lofa Tatupu said. “I watch the film, personally, and I counted anywhere from 16 to 18 for ‘Heater.’ ”
Tatupu has earned a post-graduate degree in tackle tallying. He is the only player in franchise history to lead the team in tackles in four consecutive seasons (2005-08), and he’s also the one who gave Hawthorne the ‘Heater’ nickname during his first training camp because of the way the rookie was “heating things up.”
“It looks like ‘Heater’ has mastered that technique – knowing where the ball should bounce, where the play should flow,” Tatupu said. “He’s doing a great job.”
Sunday’s game will feature a bakers-half-dozen of quality ’backers: Hawthorne, Tatupu and Aaron Curry for the Seahawks; Patrick Willis, Takeo Spikes, Parys Haralson and Manny Lawson for the 49ers.
There’s one big difference between Hawthorne and the others, however. Curry, Willis, Spikes and Lawson entered the league as first-round draft choices, while Tatupu was a second-round pick and Haralson a fifth-rounder.
What has allowed Hawthorne to play to a level of players with more impressive pedigrees?
“He’s a good football player,” said Mike Singletary, who was a Hall of Fame linebacker for the Chicago Bears before he became coach of the 49ers. “He makes plays. He’s a physical guy. He does a good job.”
This season, Hawthorne is doing a new job in a new scheme, as the weak-side ’backer in the defense first-year coach Pete Carroll and Bradley have installed. Last season, Hawthorne stepped in at middle linebacker for an injured Tatupu and led the team with 116 tackles. But it was a familiar role for him.
“The ‘Mike’ linebacker, to me, it’s a natural feel,” Hawthorne said.
This season, on the weak side? Not so much, at least not early in the transition.
“It’s definitely different,” Hawthorne said with a smile. “And I knew that. I knew it was going to be different. But I was up to the challenge.”
The more Hawthorne has played the new spot, and the more he has seen plays develop from a slightly different vantage point, the more productive he has become.
“It’s just starting to come to me,” Hawthorne said. “The plays are starting to repeat themselves, I’m seeing it over and over again, and I’m starting to get better.”
Having started 11 games in the middle last season, and making the defensive calls in the huddle, also has helped Hawthorne in his transition. He still steps into the role on the days when Tatupu does not practice to rest a sore knee.
“The more you know, it makes your job easier,” Hawthorne said. “If you know exactly what’s going on with the other linebackers, it helps you play off each other. And I know what the ‘Mike’ is thinking, because I played the ‘Mike.’ So that helps me know how to funnel things, and use leverage and all that.”
The way the game comes at the Seahawks’ linebackers also has played a role in Hawthorne’s spiked production.
“Some games are designated for me, or Lawyer (Milloy, the strong safety),” Tatupu said. “If they have a flex-side run and ‘Heater’ is lined up flex side, he gets the tackle. Maybe next time, it’s strong side and I get the call.
“That’s the scheme. That’s just the way it is.”
That’s definitely the way it has been. Milloy, who is second on the team in tackles (69), was the leading tackler in three of the first six games. Tatupu, third in tackles (63) overall, was the leader twice in that same span.
“It’s just the way the game shakes down sometimes,” Tatupu said. “But obviously ‘Heater’ has done a marvelous job; I’ll never take that away from him.”
After his slow start, Hawthorne obviously is up to his old tricks.
“He’s just getting more comfortable; you can see it,” said Will Herring, a backup with starter skills who knows all three positions in the Seahawks’ defense. “He’s just a playmaker. He’s got really good instincts getting to the ball.
“He’s just settling down, and just being ‘Heater.’ ”