How blitzing could be key to reviving Seahawks' pass rush

Bobby Wagner notched two sacks against the 49ers as the Seahawks ramped up their blitzing. Elaine Thompson/AP

RENTON, Wash. -- The Seattle Seahawks might have left a hint last week as to how they hope to turn their defense around after its historically bad start to the season.

It was about as subtle as Bobby Wagner bearing down on an opposing quarterback.

The All-Pro middle linebacker did a lot of that in Seattle's 37-27 win over the San Francisco 49ers.

"I feel like we were a lot more aggressive and we were able to get in the backfield and get their quarterback off his spot," Wagner said. "Obviously, we still have things to work on, but I think it was a step in the right direction."

Wagner had two of Seattle's three sacks of Jimmy Garoppolo before Nick Mullens took over late in the third quarter. He also had four of their eight QB hits as the Seahawks executed one of their most blitz-heavy game plans in 11 seasons under coach Pete Carroll.

It was a 180 from the week before, when they sat back in coverage and blitzed sparingly against the Arizona Cardinals. That didn't work. Their struggling defense couldn't register so much as an official quarterback hit on Kyler Murray, and by the end of their 37-34 overtime loss, they had allowed the most yards through six games in NFL history.

The next day, Carroll attempted to take some heat off coordinator Ken Norton Jr. by saying Seattle's defensive coaching staff -- himself included -- have to put their players in better positions, specifically when it comes to generating pressure. Carroll regretted not adjusting on the fly against Arizona with more blitzes once it became clear they weren't getting to Murray without them.

After blitzing Murray on only 8.2% of his dropbacks, the Seahawks sent at least one extra pass-rusher a whopping 51.1% of the time against San Francisco's quarterbacks. It was their highest blitz rate in any game since 2010 -- Carroll's first year in Seattle -- and more than double the rate at which they had been blitzing (23.7%) this season, according to ESPN Stats & Information.

"I thought Kenny did a really nice job of adjusting, to let them have more opportunities to see if they could create problems, like sending them and doing the things that we did," Carroll said. "Bobby was phenomenal ... He had a couple sacks, but he had three or four other rushes, too, where he was a factor and bothered the quarterback."

Blitzing that often won't be as viable of an approach when they face quarterbacks who are better at escaping pressure than Garoppolo, who played on a bad ankle. But even if it's not to that extent, more blitzing might be the fix to what's been one of the NFL's most anemic pass rushes for two years running -- especially now that All-Pro safety Jamal Adams is coming back from his groin injury.

What other choice do they have?

Sure, Carlos Dunlap will add much-needed firepower to Seattle's front four now that he's eligible to make his Seahawks debut Sunday against the Buffalo Bills. His addition via a trade with the Cincinnati Bengals should ease the burden that's been on Benson Mayowa, who's had to play more than the Seahawks anticipated. Rasheem Green's return from injured reserve this week will give them more depth on the edge.

But with general manager John Schneider unable to add a second pass-rusher before Tuesday's trade deadline, they still might not have enough to consistently get to the quarterback with a standard four-man rush.

Bruce Irvin, the pass-rusher they were perhaps counting on most this season, is out for the year. Journeyman Damontre' Moore, who had the best Pass Rush Win Rate of any Seahawks defensive lineman at 17.4% (23rd overall), just got suspended for six games. Jarran Reed hasn't regained his 2018 form.

Moore, Reed and L.J. Collier have one sack apiece while Mayowa and rookie Alton Robinson are tied for the team lead (along with Wagner and Adams) with two. Robinson got his second sack Sunday on a play in which Seattle blitzed.

When the Seahawks haven't blitzed, their 18.7% pressure rate with a standard four-man rush is third-lowest in the league, according to ESPN charting.

Before the San Francisco game, the Seahawks were generating pressure on only 23.1% of opposing quarterbacks' overall dropbacks. That was the fourth-lowest rate in the NFL and nearly identical to what the Seahawks produced last season, when their lack of a consistent pass rush was also an Achilles' heel.

The Seahawks have not been blitz-heavy for much of Carroll's tenure, finishing in the bottom half of the league in blitz rate in every season except for 2010. But without a top-flight pass-rusher, it figured they would have to do more of that than usual in 2020, especially since their trade for Adams gave them another excellent blitzer to go along with Wagner.

The All-Pro safety's 12 career sacks heading into this season included 6.5 last year, two more than any other NFL defensive back. His 32 career QB pressures over his first three seasons were second-most by a DB in that span, according to NFL Next Gen Stats.

The Seahawks took advantage of those skills before Adams went down late in Week 3. Their blitz rate went from 33.9% over their first three games to a league-low 11.9% over their next three.

Then came the blitz-fest against San Francisco that could be an indication of what's to come.

"I thought that the pressure we threw at them helped everybody," Carroll said postgame. "We just decided to take a little turn. Obviously, we're trying to figure some things out to get better, and we just put it on the fellas. We have a great- attitude group, and they want to play tough and physical and go after it. We just look for opportunities to make sure and show those guys. With Jamal coming back next week, it's going to happen some more. You'll see that happen as we enter him back in."