If starters are showing up at 6:50 in the morning on empty stomachs to watch game films and listen to Ray Rhodes rant about needing cold-blooded killers, they must care.

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Long before the sun climbs into the Kirkland sky, a small group of Seahawks players gathers in a room at the team’s practice facility. They fall into chairs — Michael Boulware, Jordan Babineaux, Marquand Manuel — the youngest players on Seattle’s defense.

At 6:50 a.m. the lights go down, the door opens, and Ray Rhodes, the team’s defensive coordinator, his eyes reddened from another caffeine-fueled night in the film room, begins a video tutorial.

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The projector flickers to life. Football everywhere. Most of it revealing the tendencies of the coming opponent. In a few hours the same tape will be played again in a meeting with all the defensive players, but that is hardly of consequence to the players gathered around the projector and the man running the tape.

They call it the Breakfast Club. Only no coffee or donuts are served. Food is not allowed in the daily Breakfast Club meeting. This is a teaching meeting.

And last week, with the playoffs dangling precariously on the line, the Breakfast Club got a little bigger.

Cornerback Marcus Trufant showed up for the early meetings, as did linebacker Isaiah Kacyvenski.

This week, with the playoffs dangling, mattered that much.

“All week, baby,” Trufant said. “We knew it was a big game.”

It has not been a good autumn for the Seahawks’ defensive players. Something went awry in that October game against the Rams, when a 17-point lead disappeared from the scoreboard, and an already challenged group stumbled through the ensuing weeks. Suddenly, it could do nothing right — to a point where even the victories come with collective breaths held tight.

But there is this: The defense at least tries.

The other day, Mike Ditka, he of Iron Mike and the 1985 Chicago Bears — the greatest defense this league has known — told the San Francisco Chronicle that the Seahawks have, essentially, a team of quitters.

“Those players have no heart,” he said.

Now, they might not be very good. They might let easy victories drop from their fingers. They might drop certain touchdowns and big interceptions. But the defense doesn’t quit. If starters are showing up at 6:50 in the morning on empty stomachs to watch game films and listen to Ray Rhodes rant about needing cold-blooded killers, they must care.

And yesterday was a step forward for them.

It might not look like much. After all, the Cardinals and wobbly quarterback Josh McCown did put up 317 yards on the Seahawks. And McCown did throw for 248 of those yards. And Arizona did crawl back from 17 points down in the fourth quarter to push Seattle to the brink. Yet for the most part these numbers were deceiving.

McCown might have thrown for 248 yards, but he was pressured on many of his passes and was intercepted twice. He was sacked four times, partly because he held onto the ball too long and partly because his receivers were covered most of the time. The Cardinals have two very good receivers in Larry Fitzgerald and Anquan Boldin. Controlling them is not easy.

This is a young defense. It’s probably too young for what the Seahawks were supposedly built to do. If fully healthy, this group would be in the top half of defenses in the league. But with injuries to three players who were first-round draft picks, it is a mediocre group.

Too many important plays still drop from their fingers. Forget wondering why the officials didn’t replay Keyshawn Johnson’s touchdown in the Monday night loss. If cornerback Ken Lucas had simply caught the Vinny Testaverde pass that hit him in the hands on the next series, the game would have been over.

Yesterday, the defense had several chances to finish the game. Linebacker Solomon Bates had an interception for a sure touchdown bounce off his palms. Ken Hamlin dropped an interception in the third quarter. Two forced fumbles on McCown sacks rolled just out of the reach of a lunging Rashad Moore.

Good defenses hold onto those interceptions and corral those rolling footballs. Maybe someday the Seahawks’ defensive players will mature enough to make those plays. Maybe that happens soon. But there’s a reason Boulware, a rookie who is switching from linebacker to safety, is starting these days. He’s the one who has always held onto the ball when it heads his way.

Nonetheless, this was progress, a sign that hard work will eventually mean something. The playoffs have come, and still the projector will whir through the early-morning darkness in Kirkland.

“Oh, boy, those players don’t play hard,” Iron Mike Ditka said.

The Seahawks’ defense might not be all that good.

But at least it will play hard.

Les Carpenter: 206-464-2280 or lcarpenter@seattletimes.com