Fretting about the Seahawks’ pass rush has become as much a staple of their offseason as trying to figure out how John Schneider is going to leverage more draft picks.
Which makes the state of affairs this year something that’s going to take a little time to get used to. Because on paper (where, granted, no sacks have ever been accomplished in the history of the NFL), the Seattle pass rush looks — what’s the word? — formidable.
And deep. And far down the list of things to fret about heading into the 2021 season. Quite the opposite. With the return of Carlos Dunlap after a two-week stint in free-agent limbo, there’s plenty of reason to regard the defensive line as one of the least-worrisome aspects of the team. In fact, it seems like something to savor rather than lament, and that hasn’t been said much since the arrival of Cliff Avril and Michael Bennett uplifted the unit that helped fuel Super Bowl berths in 2013 and 2014.
Dunlap addressed the Seattle media from the patio of his Miami-area residence on Tuesday. He talked about the two-year contract worth a guaranteed $8.5 million he signed last week after the Seahawks released him with no intent to let him get away.
Twitter buzzed Tuesday about Dunlap’s summation of a conversation he had with the purportedly disgruntled Russell Wilson, who assured the defensive end he wasn’t going anywhere.
“He’s with us and he’s here to stay,’’ Dunlap said, delivering a potentially significant development in the ongoing Wilson saga.
That eased the mind of Dunlap, who said a big part of the lure of returning, in addition to falling in love with the team’s culture, was the presence of Wilson. But what Dunlap said earlier in the call about the Seahawks’ defense, whose turnaround last year coincided directly with Dunlap’s arrival in a trade from Cincinnati in late October, should ease the minds of fans.
“I just feel like sky’s the limit, because I feel like we were able to accomplish some great things last season in such a short period of time,’’ he said. “I just want to build on that, and I wanted an opportunity to build on that.”
The defensive transformation the Seahawks underwent midseason is nothing short of astonishing, and the pass rush was at the crux of that. When Dunlap arrived in a trade for backup offensive lineman B.J. Finney and a seventh-round draft pick in 2021, the defense was cratering and threatening to bring down a promising Seahawks season.
If you’ll recall, Wilson was putting up MVP-caliber statistics, and the Seahawks were 5-1. But it seemed wholly unsustainable with a defense that had given up more yards (2,875) than any team in the league. Check that — more yards, through six games, than any team in the history of the NFL.
The pass rush, which was singled out as a prime weakness ever since the team failed to re-sign Jadeveon Clowney, had produced just nine sacks. That put them on pace for 24 for the season — fewer even than the Seahawks’ 28 sacks in 2019, when the suspect pass rush was regarded as a big reason they couldn’t get out of the second round of the playoffs after finishing 11-5.
It was an example of synergy in all the wrong ways. The weak pass rush enabled opponents to gouge the secondary with huge passing yardage, and forced the Seahawks to compensate with blitzes that made them even more vulnerable.
But after Dunlap’s arrival, things changed dramatically, in a fashion no one would have dared predict. As Dunlap is quick to point out, there were other key factors, mainly the return of injured players like blitzing safety Jamal Adams and defensive lineman Rasheem Green.
But the turnaround was undeniable. The same team that the previous week had failed to register a single official quarterback hit on Kyler Murray’s 49 dropbacks in an overtime loss to Arizona suddenly became sacking demons.
Over the final nine games, no team in the NFL delivered more sacks than the Seahawks’ 34. From the dregs of the NFL rankings, they wound up finishing seventh in the league with 46. Dunlap appeared to be the linchpin with five sacks and 14 quarterback hits in eight regular-season games with Seattle after the trade.
Dunlap’s arrival unquestionably energized Jarran Reed, who had 5 1/2 sacks over the final nine regular season games and then sacked Jarred Goff twice in Seattle’s playoff loss to the Rams. And the presence of a stout pass rush had a ripple effect on the pass defense, which improved exponentially as well. In the second half of the season, the dynamics simply flipped; it was the Seattle defense that carried the team, and the offense that become problematic.
Reed has moved on, a cap casualty who was cut and eventually signed with Kansas City. That’s a significant loss, but the Seahawks had to make some judgment calls, and determined that beefing up the edge rush trumped retaining Reed with an $8.9 million cap hit once he declined to restructure his deal.
They were able to sign free-agent defensive end Kerry Hyder Jr., who had 8 ½ sacks for the 49ers last year. He will man the five-technique strongside defensive end opposite Dunlap and Benson Mayowa, who was re-signed after delivering six sacks last year. Rookie Alton Robinson had four sacks, and Darrell Taylor remains a highly intriguing wild card after sitting out his entire rookie season with an injury. Pete Carroll was steadfastly glowing in assessing Taylor’s potential.
It remains to be seen how the interior defensive line will be crafted around Poona Ford, who received a two-year extension. But the Seahawks signed veteran Al Woods, return Bryan Mone and Cedrick Lattimore, and could use defensive ends Green, Hyder and L.J. Collier inside as the need dictates. Dunlap said it would be “very dope” to be reunited with longtime teammate and eight-time Pro Bowl selection Geno Atkins, a free agent at defensive tackle after being recently cut by the Bengals.
Dunlap has been consistent from virtually his first day in Seattle in expressing his happiness with the Seahawks. That hasn’t changed. And he believes the team has the pieces it needs to contend for a title — including a robust pass rush. That notion would have caused you to be laughed out of the room last September.
“I came back because of the culture, the transparency with the organization, and I believe that our season was cut short,’’ Dunlap said. “I say ‘cut short’ because I feel like we had full ability and capabilities of going much further than we did. But it was cut short because we didn’t perform. I welcome the challenge of starting from day one, game one, and trying to get back to where we were, and going further.”
You could even say he’s in a rush.