The 3.5 sacks Carlos Dunlap has in the three games he’s played for Seattle are impressive enough.
Those sacks, which put Dunlap second among all Seahawks after 10 games, are a big reason they have been on something of a sacking spree, with 16 in the past four weeks and suddenly up to 25 for the season.
That’s tied for 11th in the NFL and only three off the total for the 2019 season, when Seattle had the second-fewest sacks in the NFL.
But that 3.5 number doesn’t tell the entire story.
Dunlap arrived via trade in October as one of the league’s better pass rushers the past decade, with 82.5 sacks in a Bengals career that began in 2010.
And though the perception was that he had fallen off his game this season before the trade, he’s obviously picked up where he left off last season — when he had nine.
And that gives Seattle something it hasn’t had most of this season — a player requiring extra attention from opponents, which can open things up for others.
“Opportunities arise when you know guys around you are creating problems,” Seahawks coach Pete Carroll said. “There’s just more space and more opportunity to make your presence known.”
That happened on one key play in the 28-21 victory Thursday over Arizona, when second-year player L.J. Collier burst past former Seahawk and current Arizona guard J.R. Sweezy to draw a holding penalty in the end zone, which resulted in a safety.
Seattle had just punted and held just a 23-21 lead with 9:30 play. First, safety Jamal Adams helped force a grounding call against Cardinals quarterback Kyler Murray when he came in on a blitz. That put the ball at the 2-yard line, and then Collier drew the holding penalty.
Collier is listed as an end. But on that play he lined up at tackle — a common tactic Seattle uses with its ends in passing situations to get them lined up on guards in obvious pass-rush situations — next to Dunlap.
The same was true when Collier got a sack on the second possession of the game, which helped force an Arizona three-and-out and helped set a tone for the day of defense. After failing to record a QB hit on Murray in the teams’ first meeting, Seattle had seven Thursday night, along with three sacks,
“He just creates some lanes for other guys,” Carroll said of Dunlap. “He’s contributed to other guys’ rushes as well.”
And Dunlap also got his own, with two sacks in the game, including on the final play of the game, a fourth down when Arizona was perched perilously close to Seattle’s end zone at the Seahawks’ 27-yard line.
Seattle used just a four-man rush, knowing Arizona had to throw it into — or close to — the end zone. That might have been risky early in the season.
But on Thursday Dunlap was able to easily beat Arizona right tackle Kelvin Beachum and sack Murray before any receivers got close to the end zone.
That’s the kind of luxury Seattle had for years in the Michael Bennett-Cliff Avril era.
Seattle hoped it would get that consistently this year with veterans Bruce Irvin and Benson Mayowa. But Irvin was sidelined for the season because of a knee injury in the second game, and Mayowa was serviceable with two sacks in the first six games before suffering an ankle injury that held him out for three weeks.
Unable to get much of a four-man rush, the Seahawks resorted to blitzing more than at any time in the Carroll era. Via Pro Football Reference, Seattle has blitzed 34% of the time this season, 10th-most in the NFL.
But blitzing puts defensive backs in risky one-on-one situations, and Seattle has paid the price on some big plays, particularly in the 44-34 defeat at Buffalo when the Seahawks allowed the most points in the Carroll era.
Seattle actually blitzed quite a bit more against Arizona on Thursday than in their first meeting. Via ESPN, the Seahawks blitzed on 34% of Murray’s 47 dropbacks. That compared with 8.2% in the first game.
But Seattle seemed to do it with a bit more finesse this time. On one early play Seattle appeared set to blitz, then backed off. As Buffalo had done against a blitz two weeks before on a key third down, Arizona threw a quick screen. But this time Seattle backed out of the blitz and had the play well covered.
The Seahawks allowed only six points in the second half the previous week against the Rams, That they trailed by 10 basically the entire half made it fair to wonder if holding Los Angeles mostly in check in that half was a mirage or a sign of things to come.
The Arizona game, to Carroll, proved that Seattle’s defense is making huge strides.
Adams has 3.5 sacks since returning from injury three games ago, and, as Dunlap, has helped contribute to some others with his disruption.
Seattle, in fact, had just 12 sacks in seven games before Dunlap arrived and Adams returned, but has more than doubled that total with 13 in the three games since.
And getting the Pro Bowl playmakers in the lineup full time also is allowing the rest of the players — such as Collier — to home in and get increasingly confident with their roles.
“These last six quarters that we’ve played have been different,” Carroll said. “Guys have really taken a step forward in owning what they’re doing and in the communications and the adjustments and utilizing the package and disguising really well and really feeling comfortable with it.”