Marked Improvement By Seahawks Defense Makes Seattle Team to Beat in the NFC

Brent Sobleski@@brentsobleskiNFL AnalystNovember 20, 2020

Seattle Seahawks outside linebacker K.J. Wright (50) and defensive end Carlos Dunlap (43) celebrate after a play against the Arizona Cardinals during the first half of an NFL football game, Thursday, Nov. 19, 2020, in Seattle. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)
Elaine Thompson/Associated Press

A single play doesn't determine a winner or loser in any football contest. Yet, one play answered so many questions raised about the Seattle Seahawks and their woeful defense through the first 10 weeks of play. 

On 4th-and-10 in Seattle territory with the Arizona Cardinals trailing by seven points, quarterback Kyler Murray dropped back to pass only to be met by Seattle's recently acquired defensive end, Carlos Dunlap II. The stop secured a 28-21 favor in the Seahawks' favor. 

In doing so, the Seahawks become exponentially more dangerous as an opponent since the Seattle offense is already good enough to score on anyone. The squad simply needed its defense to hold up its end of the bargainwhich it failed to do in previous weeks. However, a couple of key additions plus improved health could very well make the Seahawks' D passable over the second half of the season and the NFC team to beat as the postseason looms. 

"There's no reason we can't come together and play really good football," head coach Pete Carroll told reporters of his defense after the victory. 

Dunlap coming up big during a critical moment speaks for itself. However, the play encapsulates what Seattle needed so desperately for the last two seasons. The team didn't have a true edge-rusher, though it tried and tried to address the position with Jadeveon Clowney, Ziggy Ansah and a host of others. 

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What everyone saw since the Seahawks acquired the Cincinnati Bengals' all-time leading sack artist prior to the trade deadline for backup center B.J. Finney and a 2021 seventh-round draft pick is a difference-maker. 

He's exactly what Seattle needed in the worst way. 

"This is an outside guy, he's classically what you're looking for as an edge-rusher," Carroll told reporters after the deal had been completed. "There's always times you're mixing schemes and you're doing things to disguise stuff and all of that. He's got the ability to [move inside] but that's not what we're bringing him here to do."

A quick look at Seattle's final defensive play shows a long and lean edge-rusher working half a blocker, dipping his shoulder, using a rip move, turning the corner and flattening toward the quarterback for the sack. 

The move can be seen in almost every professional contest a person watches. Yet, it means so much more in Seattle where Dunlap's three sacks in three games with the Seahawks already ties him for the team lead among the defensive linemen. 

In fact, the 31-year-old veteran had as many pressures during Thursday's first half (four) as the rest of the Seahawks combined, per NFL Next Gen Stats

"This is exactly what they brought me here to do," Dunlap told reporters

Consistent pressure and disruptive play create a ripple effect through all three defensive levels.  

Dunlap is only part of the equation. Nose tackle Damon Harrison played his second contest in a seafoam green and navy uniform. Harrison isn't the same plugger he once claimed to be—he was easily the game's best run defender from 2013-18—but he remains a competent space-eater to hold the point of attack and provide the Seahawks with a different dynamic up front.

Elaine Thompson/Associated Press

Arizona's running backs, Kenyan Drake and Chase Edmonds, didn't carry the ball often Thursday, but the duo managed only 3.2 yards per carry when they did. 

On top of the Dunlap and Harrison additions, Rasheem Green and Benson Mayowa's return to the lineup from injuries provided a boost to Seattle's defensive front. In total, the unit managed three sacks and seven more quarterback hits, including three by Dunlap. 

A more talented and aggressive line makes coverage a little easier.

Against Murray, the Seahawks maintained their rush lanes and responsibilities, so the game's premier dual-threat quarterback couldn't get loose. As ESPN Stats & Info noted, Murray managed a season-low 15 rushing yards despite running for more than 60 yards, including 106 two games ago against the Miami Dolphins, in Arizona's previous four contests. Linebacker Bobby Wagner attributed the front's success to gap discipline. 

More importantly, the Cardinals didn't torch Seattle's secondary. The Seahawks' pass defense has been talked about in the same breath as the worst groups in NFL history. The once-famed Legion of Boom had gone bust until Thursday night. Previously, opponents averaged 353.3 passing yards per game. No other defense was even within 350 total passing yards of Seattle's futility. 

The group looked much better against an Arizona team that scored 30 or more points in five straight contests. The Cardinals gained only 257 yards through the air in the Great Northwest, though. 

To better understand how much of an improvement that is by Seattle, Murray threw for 360 yards when these division rivals met in Week 7. 

Jamal Adams' inclusion after missing the previous meeting certainly helps to a degree, but the safety makes more impact plays in the box or even rushing the passer. Really, the surrounding pieces needed to play batter, and they did, particularly cornerback Tre Flowers. 

Arizona wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins entered the two teams' latest encounter with the league's second-most receiving yards (861). His 127-yard effort last week, including the now-famous 43-yard "Hail Murray" reception, earned him the honor of NFC Offensive Player of the Week. Flowers helped hold Hopkins to five receptions for 58 yards. 

Sure, Murray wasn't on-target most of the night and made some poor throws when he had open options. The fourth-quarter touchdown connection between the second-yard quarterback and Edmonds that resulted from a blown coverage must be rectified. A complete about-face won't happen overnight, but positive signs make the Seahawks feel more like themselves and how they play winning football. 

"We had to get to this guy. We had to get this guy uncomfortable," Wagner told reporters of the defense's overall performance. "That was the only chance we had to win this game. ...

"I definitely feel like he felt us."

Incremental improvement from Seattle's defense will help create mountainous momentum for the entire squad. 

"It felt like the Seahawks," Carroll reiterated. 

         

Brent Sobleski covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @brentsobleski.