Lofa Tatupu conceives a defense that cannot be scored on. A perfect defense not made of perfect men but perfect execution. If you narrow in on him for a quarter, you see a fidgety perfectionist moving his men around mere inches so they are better positioned. You see a strategist that knows how to position himself to stop the run without getting sucked in by play action. You see a whirlwind that'd rather run 20 yards than allow a 20 yard gain become a 22 yard gain.
I dropped into Tatupu's world for the third quarter and the start of the fourth. Seattle was protecting a ridiculous lead, and so Tatupu was working mostly as a pass defender. Linebackers make reputations with their tackling. Tatupu did. He made his third Pro Bowl picking A.J. Feeley three times. That was a long time ago.
Tatupu is so stocky, seemingly thicker by the season, and his pre-draft profile cast him as an overachiever. It's tempting to ignore his athleticism and assign him powers of heart, guts and humors. That's a false step away from understanding. That's a misread you won't find in Tatupu's perfect defense.
Tatupu drops deep and fast. He slide steps with an eye on the quarterback. He sets into the deep middle and plays middle linebacker there. That's where he joined a gang of four that smacked around Torry Holt. Holt got the first, but barely, and took four solid shots to get it. Tatupu led off. He hit Holt in the ball and fell away attempting a strip. Then Josh Wilson dropped a shoulder and his force sort of righted Holt after he had spun away from Tatupu. Jordan Babineaux joined in with a head of steam and his hit was the finisher. Aaron Curry got the pin, Wilson and Babineaux split the tackle, and Tatupu was stuck with a broken tackle in some stickler's notebook.
Tatupu attacks the ball. He's fumble hungry and almost a year overdue. He drops some tackles because of it, but he relies on his teammates to clean up. If he's not the first man, he knows how to wrap and stop a ball carrier where they stand. Before an illegal formation penalty nullified it, Tatupu played middle linebacker from the end zone on Maurice Jones-Drew's near touchdown reception. Seahawks falling off him left and right, Drew was literally bent back and away from the goal line by a shattering Tatupu tackle. He doesn't always wrap perfectly, in part because of his build and in part because of a desire to strip, but he knows how to pop a guy when pop matters.
He's an option man on blitzes. It's a neat little wrinkle I've come to look for. He moves forward as if to blitz, but Tatupu is not committed. He can rush, but disengage to cover an outlet receiver. He can rush, decide it's a run and run blitz. Curry around the edge and Tatupu through the hole is a pincer opposing rushers will learn to fear. The two did it twice this quarter: First on the fourth play of the Jags first drive and then on the fifth play of the third drive. The rushes combined for -1 yards.
Whatever the call, he contributes. When he faces max protect and hasn't a receiver to cover or a blitz to run, Tatupu can be found popping an offensive lineman just in case it helps. On the first play of the second half, he smashed into right guard Uche Nwaneri just in case he was thinking of blocking down field. Garrard had passed to Holt on the left. Maybe it didn't matter that time, but it mattered. Lofa Tatupu conceives of a perfect defense. In it, every hit has a purpose and every defender a player to hit.