As the Seahawks returned to action coming off a bye week in early November, Carlos Dunlap needed to get something off his chest. Playing in the first year of a two-year deal signed with the team in March, the veteran pass rusher didn't feel like he was being used as promised during contract negotiations.
At the time, Dunlap wasn't pleased at all with his increasingly diminished role as part of Seattle's defensive line rotation. Inexplicably dropping back into coverage at a higher rate than he did in eight games with the team in 2020, the two-time Pro Bowler entered the bye week with just half a sack and four quarterback hits and already had three games where he failed to generate any statistics.
After sparking the Seahawks pass rush after coming over in a midseason trade with the Bengals one year prior, Dunlap disappointingly had become a relative non-factor in his 12th season. But as he told coaches coming out of the bye, he felt he could still make a significant impact if the team did a better job of maximizing his strengths and letting him hunt opposing passers.
"I just communicated to them like 'hey, I was very transparent on what I wanted to do coming back with you guys, asked you what you see me doing,'" Dunlap explained following Seattle's season-ending 38-30 win over Arizona. "We talked about things and I just reminded them what we had the conversation about and everybody was respectful, everybody was a pro. It's a first-class organization and there were no hard feelings from those conversations and everything started to fall into place slowly but surely."
Interestingly, the conversation with Seattle's coaching staff didn't yield immediate changes in playing time for Dunlap. In fact, he logged a grand total of 11 snaps in Week 12 and Week 13, playing less than 15 percent of the team's defensive plays in both contests. A team struggling to find a pass rush mystifyingly decided to phase out one of its best pass rushers and barely play him.
But despite playing just seven snaps in a Week 13 win over the 49ers, Dunlap made the most of his limited chances as a situational rusher, sacking Jimmy Garoppolo on what would be foreshadowing of things to come in the final five games.
While Dunlap didn't record any pressures the next week in a blowout win over Houston, the former Florida standout turned in one of the best performances of his career in a rare Tuesday night game against the Los Angeles Rams. Though the Seahawks fell 20-10, he dominated tackles Andrew Whitworth and Bobby Evans throughout the night with bull rushes and rip moves, sacking Matthew Stafford three times on just 15 pass rushing snaps.
Only five days later on short rest, Dunlap continued his onslaught on opposing quarterbacks, pressuring Bears signal caller Nick Foles six times on 23 pass rushing snaps while registering a pair of sacks and three hits. It marked the first time in his illustrious career where he produced five sacks in a two-game span.
An ankle injury suffered early in a Week 16 win against Detroit prevented Dunlap from adding to his total. But after being listed as questionable on the final injury report prior to Sunday's finale, he suited up and wrapped up a fantastic second half of the season by sacking Arizona dual-threat quarterback Kyler Murray twice. In total, the veteran registered five combined pressures, three quarterback hits, and a swatted pass, stuffing the stat sheet once again.
Considering how poorly the season started for Dunlap and his pass rushing counterparts, he couldn't have asked for a better finish and with him only four sacks away from 100 for his career, he vowed to reach that mark quickly next season.
"I am very grateful to be able to finish the season strong because early on in the season, not getting back there for whatever reasons that you want to say," Dunlap reflected. "I pride myself getting back there, so it was very challenging, frustrating early in the year. But once they let us get in a rhythm, you're seeing all of us eating as a d-line and you see once I'm in position, I've made my career on doing what I did to get these sacks. It's clear where my strengths are. I would love to build on that."
While Dunlap didn't elaborate on any specifics from the discussions he held internally with the coaching staff back in November, whatever was said behind closed doors seemed to pay dividends not only for him, but for the rest of Seattle's defensive line. Not surprisingly, once he started heating up off the edge, the rest of the group followed suit just as they did upon his arrival midway through the 2020 season.
During the final six games of the season, though they still struggled to find the consistency Carroll and his staff desired, the Seahawks amassed 16.0 sacks as a team, finishing 11th overall among NFL teams during that span. They also finished 13th in the league in quarterback pressures. In comparison, they had only 18.0 sacks and 128 quarterback pressures in the first 11 games, ranking 30th and 19th respectively.
On an individual basis, per TruMedia, Rasheem Green picked the best time to play his best football feeding off of Dunlap's play, producing 3.5 sacks in the final six games before hitting free agency in March. Though he only produced 1.5 sacks, Darrell Taylor racked up 11 pressures in those contests, while defensive tackle Poona Ford produced a whopping 14 pressures rushing from the interior.
Set to turn 33 next month, Dunlap remains on the books in 2022 with an affordable $6.5 million cap hit. Unlike a year ago, it seems unlikely the Seahawks would release him, especially after his scintillating finish to the season. Even with the franchise coming off its worst season in more than a decade, there's nowhere else he would rather be and he intends for him and his defensive line mates to play a key role in their pursuit of a bounce-back season.
"I feel like we've done some great things. Obviously, how we started this season was not where I saw myself fitting in with this team when we had our conversations about it and the last half of the season was after those conversations and you see what we were able to accomplish together as a whole group."