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Kerney gets a rush out of pressure

The defensive end, who signed with Seattle as a free agent, enjoys making big plays when it matters most. He'll get another shot at Favre this week.

January 10, 2008|David Wharton | Times Staff Writer

SEATTLE -- By early in the fourth quarter, the Seattle Seahawks were behind, the game in danger of slipping away. A roar filled their stadium beside Puget Sound, fans pleading for the defense to make a stop.

The circumstances were dire but, in a funny way, they suited Patrick Kerney just fine.

"I don't know how you describe it," he said. "You want to be the guy who has to make the play."

Last spring, the All-Pro defensive end signed with Seattle as a free agent for precisely the situation his team faced last weekend in an NFC wild-card game against the Washington Redskins.

Tons of pressure. Crowd going wild.

On a critical third down, Kerney beat his blocker and hammered the quarterback, forcing a hurried pass that fell incomplete. Washington missed a short field-goal attempt and the Seahawks were on their way to a 35-14 comeback win.

The victory sends them to an NFC divisional playoff at Green Bay on Saturday. Packers quarterback Brett Favre has an idea of what's coming.

"Patrick Kerney's playing unbelievable," Favre said. "He has a bull rush, he has a speed rush, and so you have to focus on him first. You have to put two people on him or you're kidding yourself."

Going into frigid Lambeau Field as underdogs, the Seahawks might require the kind of big plays that Kerney can provide.

During the regular season, he ranked second in the NFL with 14.5 sacks and forced five fumbles. That was good enough for him to finish tied for second in voting for the defensive player of the year.

Just as important to the team, Kerney is known around the league as a "character guy," a player whose passion and discipline can be contagious in the locker room.

As Coach Mike Holmgren explained after Kerney signed: "He gives it everything he's got, leaves nothing on the field. That's how he was as an opponent. So I'm just very, very happy he's on my side now."

During the off-season, Seattle went looking to bolster its defense, and the pass rush in particular. Kerney, who voided the final two years of his contract at Atlanta, was a primary target.

There were doubts about him. Having just turned 30, his production had slipped in recent seasons and he was recovering from a torn pectoral muscle. But Seattle had two key people -- team President Tim Ruskell and assistant coach Jim Mora -- who had been with him in Atlanta.

They knew about his character. After his brother died on patrol as a policeman, Kerney established a foundation to help families of fallen officers. They knew about his work ethic, a drive that transformed him from a walk-on at Virginia to a first-round draft pick in 1999.

Kerney said: "One thing I've always thought of since college is making sure you do every last rep in the weight room, every last run on the field, chase the ball in practice to stay in great shape. There are a lot of people in this league and not everybody does that. Slowly, you start building space between you and your competition."

Off the field, this determination translates into a fastidious diet cooked by a personal chef. NFL folklore has it that Kerney goes to bed by nine every night.

"Well, 10 o'clock," he said. "I'm pretty tight with all aspects of my life during the seven months of the season."

As one of several teams pursuing Kerney, Seattle had him spend a day with its like-minded middle linebacker, former USC star Lofa Tatupu. The players hit it off.

"What I see in him is a guy who lives for this game," Kerney said of Tatupu. "That's what Lofa is all about. That's what I'm all about."

There were other reasons to like the Seahawks. They were a proven contender, only a year removed from a Super Bowl appearance. And Qwest Field can be an extraordinarily noisy place.

"I played as a visitor here with this crowd and realized how tough it is," Kerney said. "That definitely factored in."

Within days, he signed a contract and flew back to the Pacific Northwest, sharing a plane ride with another free agent, safety Deon Grant, and acting as a recruiter. Grant signed and so did safety Brian Russell, part of a renovation that has seven new starters on defense.

The results have not been overly dramatic -- the Seahawks ranked 15th in total defense during the regular season. But they shaved yards and points off their average and rank high in interceptions and sacks.

During a late-season winning streak, Kerney had three 3.0-sack games in four weeks to help his team into the playoffs. Against Washington, he had seven tackles and four quarterback hurries.

Shortly after Kerney's big third-down play, cornerbacks Marcus Trufant and Jordan Babineaux returned intercepted passes for touchdowns to pad the margin of victory.

"They had a great stop, made them miss a field goal, and then two touchdowns in the fourth quarter," running back Shaun Alexander said. "It makes everybody smile."

Now comes another test.

Kerney played for the Atlanta team that stunned the Packers during the 2002-03 playoffs. But it is no secret that Lambeau Field can be inhospitable.

"I'm sure it will be nice and cold," he said. "It's that gritty, late-season football that you love."

And the Falcons' playoff run after the 2004 season, which ended one game short of the Super Bowl, taught him about losing in the postseason.

"I learned that the deeper you get in the playoffs, the further amount you climb, the further the fall is when you lose," he told reporters earlier this season. "Without a doubt, losing that NFC championship game was the hardest loss of my career."

At the very least, he figures that if the Seahawks can keep the score close against Green Bay, they have a shot at the end.

Just get him into the fourth quarter, the fans yelling, a big third down.

Give him a chance to make a play.

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david.wharton@latimes.com

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PLAYOFFS

AFC

Divisional round

Jacksonville at New England

Saturday, 5 p.m., Channel 2

San Diego at Indianapolis

Sunday, 10 a.m., Channel 2

NFC

Divisional round

Seattle at Green Bay

Saturday, 1:30 p.m., Ch. 11

N.Y. Giants at Dallas

Sunday, 1:30 p.m., Ch. 11

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