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Finding Pass Rush Critical to Seahawks Orchestrating Second Half Playoff Run

Failing to meet expectations amid a slow start, the Seahawks haven't turned up the heat on opposing quarterbacks as planned. Following an encouraging performance in Week 8, can Carlos Dunlap and his pass rushing brethren step up to help their team push for a playoff berth?

RENTON, WA - Entering training camp back in July, turning a new leaf compared to the previous two seasons where quarterbacks were comfortable enough in the pocket they might as well have had a remote and a sofa, the Seahawks expected their pass rush to be a defensive strength in 2021.

After all, following the arrival of Carlos Dunlap in a midseason trade from Cincinnati, Seattle led the entire NFL in sacks from Week 9 on. The veteran rusher's presence galvanized the entire defensive line and with safety Jamal Adams wreaking havoc as a blitzer on his way to an NFL record 9.5 sacks by a defensive back, opposing signal callers didn't enjoy facing them throughout the second half.

With Dunlap and Benson Mayowa returning on new two-year deals, Darrell Taylor coming back healthy after a lost rookie season due to injury, and reliable veteran Kerry Hyder fleeing the 49ers in free agency to join them, the Seahawks returned most of the same cast of characters up front. Meanwhile, Adams had a new $70 million contract in tow, giving coach Pete Carroll and defensive coordinator Ken Norton Jr. a wide array of pass rushing options to unleash.

But through the first eight games of the season, as a key component of a disappointing 3-5 start, Seattle's pass rush renaissance hasn't continued into a new season. In nearly every meaningful metric, Dunlap and company haven't met high expectations harassing quarterbacks to this point.

Heading into Week 10, according to Pro Football Reference, the Seahawks ranked 15th in pressure rate (23.5 percent), 29th in sacks (14), and 19th in quarterback hits. Taking things a step further, ESPN ranks them 18th overall in their pass rush win rate metric at 41 percent and Pro Football Focus ranks them 20th overall in pass rushing grade as a team (69.2).

On an individual level, Taylor leads Seattle with 4.0 sacks, which ranks 34th in the NFL. Behind him, based on Pro Football Reference's statistics, Rasheem Green is the only other player on the roster with more than a single sack. Dunlap didn't have a sack in the first six games and still has only 0.5 sacks for the year, while Mayowa and Alton Robinson have been limited to one apiece.

As evidenced in the table below using Pro Football Focus' data, Taylor, Robinson, and Dunlap are the only three Seahawks with a pressure rate above 10 percent on more than 50 pass rushing opportunities. Few of those pressures have resulted in actual quarterback hits. Meanwhile, as a product of blitzing far less often compared to 2020, Adams has yet to record a quarterback hit either and has largely been a non-factor in the pass rushing department.

Seahawks 2021 Pass Rushing Statistics

Pro Football Focus

PlayerSacksQB HitsPressuresPass Rush SnapsPressure Rate

Carlos Dunlap

2

3

20

189

10.5%

Darrell Taylor

4

5

18

131

13.7%

Rasheem Green

3

3

17

234

7.2%

Kerry Hyder

1

6

16

199

8%

Poona Ford

0

2

13

208

6.25%

Alton Robinson

1

1

8

70

11.4%

Benson Mayowa

1

1

7

74

9.4%

Al Woods

1

2

8

160

5%

Robert Nkemdiche

0

0

4

80

5%

Bryan Mone

0

2

4

92

4%

L.J. Collier

0

2

2

22

13.6%

Bobby Wagner

1

2

9

34

26.4%

Jamal Adams

0

0

3

38

7.8%

Jordyn Brooks

1

1

6

26

23%

Given those underwhelming numbers and rankings across the board, it shouldn't come as a surprise Carroll has repeatedly stressed the importance of finding consistency rushing the passer over the past couple of months. He continued to hammer home the idea after a 31-7 win over Jacksonville in Week 8.

“We have to keep going," Carroll said in his post-game press conference. "We have to keep mixing our pressures and the stuff that we are doing to help the rush, coverage wise, and get them down. We could have had five sacks easily in that game."

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But while the Seahawks only brought down rookie quarterback Trevor Lawrence for one sack on the afternoon, Carroll finally saw signs of the consistent productivity he has been seeking for weeks against the Jaguars.

Preventing Lawrence from getting comfortable from the outset, Pro Football Focus credited Seattle with 30 combined pressures, led by a stellar effort by Dunlap, who registered a season-best six pressures and two batted passes. Taylor, Hyder, and Robert Nkemdiche all pitched in with at least three pressures apiece, while safety Ryan Neal recorded a sack and two quarterback hits on four blitzes.

Constantly forced out of the pocket by a feisty Seahawks front four, Lawrence finished with 32 completions on 54 pass attempts for 238 yards, averaging a meager 4.4 yards per attempt. Benefiting from the improved pass rush, cornerbacks D.J. Reed, Tre Brown, and Sidney Jones didn't allow a single Jaguars receiver to eclipse 40 yards in the game, combining to yield seven receptions for 51 yards and no touchdowns.

"We were really active in the Jacksonville game, we knocked a bunch of balls down, and chased the quarterback all over the place," Carroll told reporters on Monday. "There were at least three or four times that he threw the ball away as he’s going down or could have been sacked very easily or turned over very easily. The pass rush was really effective in that game. The sack numbers didn’t show it, but I’m much more in tune with the effect of the guys’ efforts. It worked really well with our coverage too."

Starring in the secondary as he has all season long, safety Quandre Diggs picked off Lawrence in the second quarter and saw first hand the impact the front line as well as Bobby Wagner and Neal had on the outcome with their persistent pressure on the quarterback. After struggling mightily early in the season to marry the pass rush with their coverage, the veteran defender has seen the two units start to put things together over the past few weeks.

"Them guys were after it. It's crazy that you can sub in different guys and those guys know how to get the quarterback," Diggs commented. "From Benson [Mayowa] to DT [Darrell Taylor] to Dunlap to Kerry [Hyder], Rasheem [Green]. Even our big guys in Poona [Ford], Bryan Mone, Al [Woods], those guys are getting to the quarterback too. So it's definitely dope when you can see that, guys getting sacks, Bobby's rushing and doing his thing. Jamal [Adams], Ryan Neal getting sacks. It's dope when everybody can do it and maybe I get down there, go get me a sack one of these weeks."

Despite their dreadful start, thanks to a top-heavy NFC, the Seahawks sit only half a game out of the final wild card spot behind the 4-4 Falcons with nine games left to play. With Russell Wilson coming back from finger surgery after missing three games, a playoff spot remains very much in reach if the team can string together a bunch of wins in November and December.

But in order to do that, a defense that has steadily improved from front to back over the past three games must continue to trend in the right direction, starting with their sporadic pass rush that has yet to fulfill its potential. Viewing him as the catalyst to achieving the consistency he wants up front, Carroll thinks Dunlap's encouraging performance in Week 8 could be a sign of things to come, starting with this upcoming weekend against Aaron Rodgers and the Packers.

“He really caught fire with us as we got going. It really helped the other guys be active. He is a part of it, he has a style of aggressiveness in his pass rush that is not as finesse oriented as Darrell Taylor would be, but he is more power oriented. He does crush down the pocket when he gets in. He can be a big factor, not for just last game, but I thought it was his best game and most effective play. I’m hoping that it is a factor in every one of these games, it’s going to be a huge factor this week, for sure."

Once Dunlap gets rolling alongside Taylor, much as he did for the Seahawks after his arrival last year, Carroll hopes to see the likes of Mayowa, Hyder, and Robinson feed off his play and follow suit, creating a ripple effect for the rest of the defense. Already seeing positive signs of progress from the front line to the secondary before the bye, he's banking on improved production rushing the passer creating more turnover opportunities and spearheading a second half run.

"I think we have taken a turn, I like what we are doing, I like where we are, I like the mentality, and all of that, so we have to put some stuff together. We have to take the ball away from the other team. We have missed three little tipped balls for picks that we could have had, so that will be a big difference for us if we can turn that around.”