How did Carlos Dunlap feel at the end of the NFL’s first 17-game season?
The 12-year veteran laughed at the question.
One month shy of turning 33 years old, he’s never been fresher in January.
Seattle’s top sack man in 2021 never played less in his NFL career than he did for the Seahawks this past season.
“I feel great, you know. You guys are aware of my snap count the last few games,” Dunlap, wryly.
“So I feel great.”
Dunlap led Seattle with 8 1/2 sacks in 2021. He was the most productive pass rusher on a defense that failed for the second straight season to consistently pressure opposing quarterbacks. He did what the Seahawks re-signed him to do last offseason, to a two-year, $13.6 million deal.
Yet he played a career-low 38% of all defensive snaps.
Want to know what was wrong with the Seahawks defense?
Not small reason was how they used — make that, did not use — Dunlap.
No NFL player had more sacks playing less in 2021. Among the top 47 players in the league in sacks — from Pittsburgh’s T.J. Watt with 23 1/2 to Alex Highsmith, who had seven sacks also for the Steelers — Dunlap was the only one to play fewer than 54% of his team’s defensive snaps.
Dunlap was on the sideline 62% of the time as the Seahawks ranked 31st in the 32-team NFL in pass defense, for a second consecutive season. For a second season in a row Seattle did not produce turnovers nearly at the rate the-ball-is-everything coach Pete Carroll demands.
The Seahawks finished 7-10. They missed the playoffs for only the second time in 10 years. When the lost season ended, Carroll emphasized the need for a more consistently effective pass rush to create pressure on quarterbacks and those needed turnovers.
Their 18 takeaways on defense this past season were the fewest in Seahawks history. Those takeaways were just four fewer than the defense had in 2020.
That’s a huge reason why Carroll fired defensive coordinator Ken Norton Jr. and defensive passing game coordinator Andre Curtis this past week.
Carroll wants a more aggressive unit. He wants more pressure, to affect QBs more than the Seahawks have the last two seasons.
Essentially, he is seeking what Dunlap gave him in 2021. That means the new defensive coordinator should play Dunlap more than Norton did this past season.
It’s not all on Norton that Dunlap was mothballed during the crux of this past season, while Seattle went from 3-5 to 3-8 and effectively out of realistic hopes at the postseason before November was over.
This is Carroll’s defense. The 70-year-old head man with a defense-first mind sets scheme and personnel that his coordinator executes.
With Dunlap in 2021, it’s obvious now he and the Seahawks messed up.
Going into the team’s bye week in November, Dunlap was playing about 50% of Seattle’s defensive snaps. That was down slightly from the 57% he played in 2020, after the Seahawks traded with Cincinnati midseason to get the two-time Pro Bowl defensive end. It was well below the 70-80% of snaps Dunlap got over his 10 seasons with the Bengals.
Upon the Seahawks returning from their bye to play at Green Bay Nov. 14, Dunlap’s playing time decreased, dramatically. He threw a Packers player’s shoe back toward his huddle following a play, resulting in a ridiculous unsportsmanlike-conduct penalty. That aided Green Bay’s first touchdown drive, early in the fourth quarter, in Seattle’s 17-0 loss.
Dunlap apologized to his teammates in the locker room at Lambeau Field following that game, and took full responsibility.
“Foolish mistake, and it won’t happen again,” Dunlap said that night just outside the door of that locker room in Lambeau Field, where Seattle still hasn’t won since 1999.
He played 31 of 74 defensive snaps at Green Bay. The following week, against Arizona in Seattle, Dunlap had just 17 plays, then a season-low.
The Pro Bowl veteran had to come off the bench to surprise his mother on the field during the Seahawks’ annual Salute to Service game. During a timeout in the third quarter the team honored Dunlap’s mom, Dr. Diana Ross-Jackson, for serving 11 years in the U.S. Army Reserve as a 91E, dental specialist. Dunlap jogged almost sheepishly off and back onto the sideline while surprising Mom.
There’s always time for a hug for mom.
A special moment as we saluted Dr. Diana Ross-Jackson, @Carlos_Dunlap’s mother, who served 11 years as a @USArmyReserve 91E Dental Specialist.#SaluteToService x @USAA pic.twitter.com/1Y56BB8UpA
— Seattle Seahawks (@Seahawks) November 21, 2021
As Dunlap mostly watched, the Seahawks had just two sacks in 46 drop backs that day by Cardinals backup QB Colt McCoy. McCoy threw for 328 yards subbing for injured Kyler Murray. Seattle got zero turnovers and lost again, 23-13.
Sinking at 3-7, the Seahawks faced another backup quarterback the following week, Tyler Heinicke at Washington. Healthy, Dunlap may not have needed to shower after that game. He played just four snaps.
Seattle got one sack in Heinicke’s 36 drop backs and lost again, 17-15 in the final seconds.
The following week, Dunlap leaping over a 49ers lineman and getting a sack of Jimmy Garoppolo for a safety in a win wasn’t enough to get him off the sideline. That big play was one of just seven snaps Dunlap had Dec. 5 against San Francisco.
Yet he kept producing. Three sacks in just 21 snaps in Seattle’s loss at the Rams Dec. 21. Two more sacks on 33 plays in the snow when the Seahawks lost a home to Chicago the day after Christmas.
By the time Dunlap finished his mysterious season with two more sacks Jan. 9 as the Seahawks closed the season with an upset win over the playoff-bound Cardinals in Arizona, the question was obvious.
Why in the name of Cortez Kennedy did the Seahawks keep their most productive pass rusher on the sideline for much of a season when they needed more pressure to produce more turnovers?
To hear Carroll tell it, it was because of under-performing former first-round pick L.J. Collier, Rasheem Green and younger defensive ends he and Norton wanted to see.
“It was just rotating guys and trying to figure out if somebody else could get in and give us a spark,” Carroll said. “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. 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 or Rasheem if we moved them around.
“That was really what was going on.”
It looked like they were phasing out Dunlap for 2022.
His seven sacks over the final four games of the season show they need to phase him back in.
Dunlap talked to Carroll and Norton while he was basically getting benched through November into December. He wasn’t happy. He said it was a respectful conversation in which the coaches explained they were trying to see what the younger defensive ends could do.
“Man, I am very grateful to be able to finish the season strong,” Dunlap said, “because, you know, early on in the season not getting back there (to the quarterback), for whatever reasons that you want to say, not getting back there, I pride myself on being back there.
“It was very challenging, frustrating, early in the year. But once they started letting us get in a rhythm you saw all of us eating as a D-line. We’ve seen that once I’m in position, I’ve built my career on doing what I did to get these sacks.
“So, it’s clear where my strengths are, you know. I’d love to build on that.”
Dunlap said “I’m glad we finished the year strong. That was a big deal for me.”
As a fringe benefit to playing far less, he’s feeling far better going into an NFL offseason than he’s ever felt.
“Not mad at that part,” he said, “coming out of the season feeling healthy in year 12 when I know that there’s a 99.9% chance of an injury.
“Sadly, Diggs got clipped.”
Diggs’, Dunlap’s futures
Dunlap’s teammate Quandre Diggs broke his leg and dislocated his ankle in the Seahawks’ season finale Jan. 9 at Arizona. It was the final game of DIggs’ second consecutive Pro Bowl season, and final quarter of the last game of his contract.
“Imagine that: Him going to the offseason as a free agent, after a Pro Bowl year, All-Pro year, too, that just, that’s just...I don’t have any words for that.
“We’re here for you, Diggs. You’ve put it on tape what type of player you are. You’ve consistently done it the last few years; it’s not like you popped in your contract year. So all you’ve got to do is get healthy and everything else will fall into place for you.”
Appeared medical personnel put an inflatable cast over Quandre Diggs’ injured leg before the cart drove him off.
This is the last game of the Pro Bowl safeties contract.
Earl Thomas once went off in a cart here in a similar situation.
This stadium for the Seahawks…man. pic.twitter.com/rVZBlMiRTB
— Gregg Bell (@gbellseattle) January 10, 2022
Carroll said following the season’s end and Diggs’ injuries it should be inferred and obvious by how the Seahawks think of Diggs and how beloved he is in their locker room that he is perhaps the team’s top priority to re-sign this offseason.
What will they do with Dunlap?
Carroll has four known candidates to replace Norton as Seattle’s defensive coordinator. He’s asked to interview Bears defensive coordinator Sean Desai, Broncos coordinator Ed Donatell and Cowboys defensive passing game coordinator and secondary coach Joe Whitt Jr. Seahawks defensive-line coach Clint Hurtt reportedly is the internal candidate.
Whomever Carroll hires, he is going to emphasize to the new coordinator the need for a better pass rush and creating turnovers.
To that end, the Seahawks need to emphasize Dunlap more in 2022.
Next season is the last of his contract. The Seahawks could save $5.1 million of Dunlap’s $6.5 million salary-cap charge for 2022 if they released him with a designation after June 1.
It would make little sense for this needy team to release its best pass rusher to save $5 million. That can’t buy what Dunlap gave them in 2021, while playing less than 40% of the time.
Despite getting motballed this past season, Dunlap says he wants to return.
“Yeah, I feel like we’ve done some great things,” he said.
“Obviously, how we started the season is not how I saw me fitting in with this team. We had our conversations about it. The last half of the season was, after those conversations, (better) and you see what we were able to accomplish together, as a whole group.
“Don’t just say I did it — as a whole group. The second half of the season the whole D-line ate. A lot.”