Seahawks edge rusher Carlos Dunlap had a simple — if not necessarily easy — goal for 2021. Get 12.5 sacks so he’d reach 100 for his career.
“That’s been my intention to start the season,” Dunlap said Sunday.
It was a lofty aspiration considering only two Seahawks this century have had that many in a season — Patrick Kerney with 14.5 in 2007 and Frank Clark with 13 in 2018.
In one of the more confounding aspects of a curious season, for much of the year Dunlap was just trying to get one.
Through the first 11 games of the season Dunlap had just a half sack, a paltry payoff for the two-year deal worth $8.5 million guaranteed the Seahawks gave him last March after initially cutting him to avoid a $14 million cap hit for 2021.
Still, through the first half of the season, Dunlap played a relatively normal amount of snaps — 30 or more in all but two games, 20 or more in the others.
Then, suddenly, Dunlap’s playing time plummeted — just 28 snaps in a three-game stretch in the Arizona, Washington and San Francisco games, just 11 against WFT and the 49ers combined.
That trio of games came after Dunlap got a penalty for throwing a shoe in a 17-0 loss at Green Bay. The shoe throw turned what would have been a third-and-3 for the Packers at the Seattle 42 into a first down at the 27. A touchdown a few plays later made it 10-0 early in the fourth quarter.
Dunlap later called it “a foolish mistake” and apologized to the team.
But if the team accepted his apology, it’s worth wondering if the Seahawks also dealt Dunlap some tough love as a result.
Asked why Dunlap’s playing time dipped for a while, coach Pete Carroll said Monday: “It was just rotating guys and trying to figure out if somebody else could get in and give us a spark. We were just trying to make it a competitive situation, give other guys a shot that had some numbers that might give us a little inkling that we could get something out of L.J (Collier) or Rasheem (Green) if we moved them around. That was really what was going on.”
Green played a season high in snaps in the first two games after the Packers contest as Dunlap barely saw the field. Collier didn’t play in the first of the three games in which Dunlap saw his time dip dramatically, but then played his two highest snap counts of the season in the following two games.
While Dunlap played just seven snaps against the 49ers on Dec. 5, he turned in two of the biggest plays of the game with a sack for a safety and a batted pass on fourth down to seal a 30-23 win.
And that appeared to get him back in the good graces of the team.
Dunlap’s snap counts have returned to a fairly normal amount the past three games — 32% or more in each.
And suddenly, his production soared.
Dunlap had three sacks in 21 snaps against the Rams last Tuesday and then two more in 33 snaps against the Bears. He almost had another on a play initially ruled as a strip-sack and a fumble before being overturned and changed to an incomplete pass.
And with five sacks in two games, Dunlap is now up to 6.5 for the season, tied with Green for the team lead and up to 94 for his career — but getting to the century mark for this year seems unlikely.
The sacks also came in two games Seattle lost to end any longshot playoff hopes, causing Dunlap to call it bittersweet.
Still, his performance the last two weeks raises the question of where that was all season.
Seattle has four sacks in its past two games, each the most for a single game this year. But Seattle has just 29 for the year, more than just six other teams. The lack of a consistent pass rush is one reason the Seahawks have only forced 14 turnovers this year, more than just five other teams. (Dunlap almost forced two by himself Sunday.)
“You can see how obvious it is a factor when a guys gets hot and gets going that he can affect other guys and help the whole group,” Carroll said on Monday.
Carroll also seemed to acknowledge for the first time that the Seahawks were trying to light a fire under Dunlap with his decreased snap counts.
“What is really, it couldn’t be more clear, is how a guy responds to the competitive opportunity,” Carroll said. “He wasn’t happy with that. He wanted to get back out there and he’s torn it up in the last few weeks. It’s given us a real boost. He’s playing great football.”
Dunlap has indicated some frustration with his role, while declining to go into specifics of why he thought his playing time was reduced. He did say after the 49ers game that his preference is to be able to “go straight and impact the game in those situations.”
So what’s changed the last few weeks?
“The teams we’ve been playing, our situations,” Dunlap said. “They have wanted more out of me, so I get a little bit more opportunities even though we’re working through it with everybody.”
And it’s worth now wondering if Dunlap, who will be 33 in February, has played his way back into Seattle’s plans for 2022, something worth questioning when he was barely playing.
Dunlap has no guaranteed money in his deal for 2022, though he does have a $175,000 bonus if he is on the roster on the fifth day of the new league year, which begins March 16. But Seattle could save his $4.075 million base salary if he’s released. He also carries a $6.5 million cap hit for next year, but Seattle could save $5.1 million if he’s released post-June 1, according to OvertheCap.com.
Dunlap, though, undoubtedly wants to keep playing somewhere to get to that treasured 100-sack mark, which would put him among the top 40 sack getters in history since sacks became an official stat in 1982.
“Chipping away at it,” Dunlap said.
Dissly, Shell off COVID list
The Seahawks Tuesday activated tight end Will Dissly and right tackle Brandon Shell from the COVID-19 reserve list. That leaves four players who are on the 53-man roster still on the list — cornerbacks D.J. Reed and Bless Austin, defensive tackle Bryan Mone and Collier. With the NFL’s new protocols reflecting the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s updated guidelines, all could be cleared to play Sunday.