Hill looking to make postseason performance the norm

Instead of being dominant in spurts, LB Leroy Hill is striving to become productive on a weekly basis. Otto Greule Jr./Getty Images

KIRKLAND, Wash. -- Lofa Tatupu and Julian Peterson keep going to Pro Bowls, but Leroy Hill could become the Seattle Seahawks' best linebacker.

"He is probably the most underrated guy in the league, to be honest with you," said Seahawks safety Brian Russell, a six-year NFL veteran.

Russell relayed a telling story. Last season, teammates convinced a defensive back to test Hill's speed in a 60-yard dash. Russell wouldn't reveal the defensive back's identity, for good reason.

"Leroy smoked him," Russell said.

And, no, the DB wasn't Russell.

"I wouldn't take that bet because I know how fast Leroy is," Russell said. "[The DB] is not on the team right now, but he was a fast guy."

ESPN.com singled out Hill as an emerging star to watch from the NFC West. The San Francisco 49ers' Patrick Willis might have qualified a year ago, but he already has achieved stardom, having earned a Pro Bowl berth as a rookie.

No lesser-known player in the division can match what Hill has accomplished in the playoffs. The Seahawks say Hill, a third-round choice from Clemson in 2005, can join the elite by becoming more consistent.

"He has that ability," defensive coordinator John Marshall said. "I think it has clicked that he can do that, and now it's up to him."

Hill has led or tied for the lead in tackles five times in seven playoff games for the Seahawks since entering the league (see chart). He finished within one tackle of Tatupu for the team lead in the other two playoff games, including Super Bowl XL.

While most of his defensive teammates fell flat in a playoff defeat at Green Bay last season, Hill finished with 11 tackles, one sack and a forced fumble. A week earlier, Hill's 13 tackles and one sack helped the Seahawks defeat the Washington Redskins in the wild-card round. He shows up when the stakes are highest.

"I was focused a little more, and hopefully this year I can put it together for the whole season," Hill said.

Hill has made similar statements in past offseasons. He improved each time. That should continue as Hill plays out the final year of a contract that pays him less than $1 million in 2008.

Peterson is scheduled to earn $5 million in salary and bonuses. He already has banked $18.5 million in the first two years of his deal. Tatupu, a Pro Bowl choice in each of his three seasons, recently signed a deal averaging nearly $6.8 million per season.

Tatupu recently told beat reporters he considers Hill the best linebacker on the team already.

That might be a little generous.

Tatupu sets the standard among Seattle linebackers for study habits and consistent play. He anticipates situations and excels against run and pass alike. He started immediately as a second-round choice in 2005, commanding much of the attention on defense as Seattle reached the Super Bowl.

The Seahawks drafted Tatupu for his instincts and leadership. They wanted Hill for his sheer athletic ability.

"We wanted to increase our team speed all across the board at linebacker," team president Tim Ruskell said. "[Hill] was the fastest, most athletic linebacker that was there at the time."

Hill didn't start right away, but he finished his rookie season with 7½ sacks. Then injuries slowed Hill heading into his second season. His role also changed when the team added Peterson in free agency.

Hill has only five sacks over the past two seasons, in part because the Seahawks funneled more of the pass-rushing opportunities elsewhere. Peterson has nearly as many sacks in two seasons with Seattle (19½) as he had in six seasons with the 49ers (21½).

Adding Patrick Kerney last season gave the Seahawks another pure pass-rusher.

The sacks Hill collected as a rookie reflected more than just pure pass-rush ability. He beat opponents with speed and benefited from pressure brought by others. He might have been more of an opportunistic rusher than a dynamic one. But the physical tools are there.

"With Leroy, it took us a little while to find out that he really is a very good pass-rusher," Marshall said. "We've got to get him going now. He has outstanding speed, he is strong."

All great defenses possess a killer instinct. The Seahawks want their defense to have that this season. Hill is their most explosive and violent defender, a big hitter with bad intentions. He has to play that way more consistently, and he must continue to work on the finer points of his game. Coaches want Hill to become more confident and aggressive in how he covers tight ends, for example. That has been a point of emphasis in training camp.

"He needs to learn to cover people physically one on one," Marshall said. "Some guys, they don't want to get beat at the line of scrimmage. That's what we're constantly telling Leroy out here: 'Any time you can get up and get your hands on a guy, do it.' "

Hill says he's getting the message. He's tired of watching Tatupu and Peterson head for Hawaii each February without him.

"Everybody knows the team's goal, but as a personal goal, I would like to cross the water," Hill said. "When they speak of linebackers, I want people to call my name."

Mike Sando covers the NFL for ESPN.com.