With Seahawks training camp kicking off later this month, Seahawks.com is taking a look at 10 of the most intriguing storylines, position battles and players heading into the 2021 season. Today we kick things off with a pass rush looking to pick up where it left off last season, and tomorrow we'll look at what a change at offensive coordinator could mean for Russell Wilson and the passing game.
The Seahawks started last season struggling to affect opposing quarterbacks, an issue that hindered their defense the previous year as well.
They finished the 2020 season, however, with one of the NFL's most productive pass rushes, recording a league-high 34 sacks over the final nine weeks of the season.
So which version of Seattle's pass-rush shows up to start the 2021 season? That might be the biggest question facing Seattle's defense, which showed it had the talent to be one of the NFL's top defenses late last season, in no small part because of the uptick in pass-rush productivity.
And while this year's pass rush will have to prove itself once the season starts, there's plenty of reason heading into camp to believe the defense will look more like it did late last season when it cut its opponent scoring average nearly in half, allowing 30.4 points per game through its first eight games and 16.0 points per game over thee final eight games.
Seahawks coach Pete Carroll called it a "main focus" this offseason to "make sure that this pass rush comes back intact, and that we can grow from there," and for the most part the Seahawks pass rush not only is coming back intact, but looking improved over the 2020 version.
Carlos Dunlap II, a midseason trade acquisition who was a big part of that aforementioned defensive turnaround, and who had 5.0 sacks in nine games, is coming back for what will be his first full season with the Seahawks, and Seattle also re-signed Benson Mayowa, who added 6.0 sacks last season. In free agency, the Seahawks added Kerry Hyder Jr., who led the 49ers with 8.5 sacks last season, as well as Aldon Smith, who had 5.0 sacks for the Cowboys in his return to the NFL after four years out of the league due to suspensions. Seattle will also be counting on continued growth from young pass-rushers like L.J. Collier and 2020 rookie Alton Robinson, and will be adding Darrell Taylor to the mix after the 2020 second-round pick missed his rookie season due to a leg injury.
"It was such a small sample of games that I got an opportunity to play in, and you were able to see what we were able to do and accomplish," Dunlap said after re-signing with Seattle. "I feel like if we can get that from Day 1 with the offseason program, being in OTAs, being in meetings, learning the culture, I just feel like the sky's the limit. I feel like we were able to accomplish some great things last season in such a short period of time, and I just want to be able to build on that. I wanted an opportunity to build on that, so I'm grateful I get an opportunity to do that."
The biggest question mark for Seattle's pass rush is how it replaces the interior-rush production of Jarran Reed, who had 6.5 sacks last season, and who was released in a salary-cap related move earlier this offseason. Poona Ford showed growth as a pass-rusher last season and will hope to continue that trend, but the Seahawks will also likely count on some of their bigger defensive ends like Collier, Hyder and Rasheem Green to contribute as interior rushers in passing situations. And even with that uncertainty about the interior rush, the players Seattle retained, and added, at defensive end are enough to make it seem likely that the pass rush looks a lot more like the unit that was one of the league's best late last season than like the group that struggled to pressure the quarterback early in the year.
"We made as good of a jump as anybody made during the season in improvement from where we were in the first half with our pass rush," Carroll said. "It took some time for guys to come together. It was really obvious that Carlos was a big factor in that. Not just his rushing, but the factor that people had to pay attention to him, they had to favor some help that that way. It helped other guys. So for us to come back and get Carlos it, was a great accomplishment for us, and Benson, that's a really big deal. Kerry Hyder had a really good year in our division last year, eight sacks and was a really big factor. So we love that we add him to it."
A look back at some of the best photos of Seahawks defensive tackle Poona Ford from the 2020 season. Ford signed a multi-year contract with Seattle on Wednesday, March 17.