Seven snaps, two big plays: Seahawks' Carlos Dunlap tries to make most of diminished role

Carlos Dunlap made the most of his seven snaps against the 49ers in helping the Seahawks break a three-game losing streak. Abbie Parr/Getty Images

SEATTLE -- Carlos Dunlap II played both a big and small role in the Seattle Seahawks snapping their three-game losing streak Sunday. The 12th-year defensive end recorded a game-tying safety in the third quarter, then batted away Jimmy Garoppolo's fourth-down pass near the goal line in the closing seconds to preserve a 30-23 win over the San Francisco 49ers.

It was a noteworthy performance for two related reasons. Until Sunday, Dunlap had produced next to nothing during his disappointing second season in Seattle. As a result, he's seen his role significantly diminished to the point that he only played seven snaps against San Francisco.

And boy did he make them count.

"It's frustrating," Dunlap said of playing so sparingly in recent weeks. "This is new for me in my career, but the coaches have communicated this is the role that they want for me and would like for me. So I just took advantage and focused in on seizing those opportunities and today ... I made something happen."

When the Seahawks (4-8) re-signed Dunlap in March for $13.6 million over two years, they felt that limiting his snaps and using him in more of a situational role would get the most out of his 32-year-old body. They weren't going to lean on him nearly as much as they used to lean on Michael Bennett and Cliff Avril, who would regularly play more than three-quarters of the snaps. Dunlap was that kind of stalwart for most of his 10-plus seasons with the Cincinnati Bengals before Seattle traded for him in October 2020.

But no one envisioned the Seahawks keeping their highest-paid defensive lineman on the bench as often as they have lately. Dunlap's snap counts over the last month have gone from 39 (51%) to 31 (42%) to 17 (20%) to four (5%) to seven (12%).

"I'm used to playing over 60% of the snaps my whole career and I have a consecutive streak of being healthy," he said. "So I'd like to keep doing that because I feel like as a rhythm rusher, it's easiest to get going when you have more opportunities."

After answering several postgame questions about his diminished role, Dunlap sounded ready for a change of subject, saying he didn't want to detract from Seattle's win. At one point, he asked fans to say a prayer for safety Jamal Adams, who left the game with a potentially serious shoulder injury that ended up being season-ending. He also volunteered support for his "dog" Gerald Everett after the tight end lost two fumbles and bobbled a would-be touchdown right to a defender for an interception.

"I know how he feels right now," Dunlap said.

That seemed like a reference to his own blunder three weeks earlier in Seattle's shutout loss at the Green Bay Packers. In the fourth quarter of a 3-0 game, Dunlap picked up a Packers player's shoe at the end of a play and chucked it in excitement. That drew an unsportsmanlike-conduct penalty that turned a third-and-3 from the 42 into a first down from the 27.

It prompted gifs of Austin Powers asking, "Who throws a shoe, honestly?" It really hurt, too, with Green Bay scoring a touchdown seven plays later to go up 10-0.

To his credit, Dunlap apologized to the team, then owned up to the mistake in his comments to reporters and on social media. It had to be especially regrettable given how little he had produced to that point after making such an impact in the second half of last season, when his arrival helped ignite the Seahawks' pass rush.

Then again, no one in that group has lit it up this season. Darrell Taylor, who's had a nice debut season, leads the team with five sacks. Rasheem Green is next with three. Dunlap is tied for third with 1.5, his first full sack coming on the safety. Adams doesn't have any after setting the record for defensive backs with 9.5 last year.

The Seahawks are 20th in ESPN's Pass Rush Win Rate (39.8%), 31st in sacks per dropback (3.7%) and tied for 30th in sacks with 19.

So much for the expectation that their pass rush would be a strength. It's been the one part of their resurgent defense that hasn't gotten going. Dunlap's safety was the Seahawks' lone sack on Sunday and one of only three official hits they got on Garoppolo.

He said the coaching staff tried to sell him on his new role as something they've seen benefit previous Seattle pass-rushers.

"You try to create situations where they can get bang for the buck and they can really be really impacting when they get their chances," coach Pete Carroll said. "For the number of plays he had yesterday, to have the impact that he had in the game was phenomenal. He was challenged a little bit by it, and he jumped at it and did a great job. He answered the call, came through and really helped us win the football game."

Dunlap is among several veterans whose future in Seattle is uncertain, if not in doubt. He's set to make a non-guaranteed $5.1 million in 2022. That would be steep for someone playing as sparingly as he has been, especially if the Seahawks undergo a major roster re-shuffle.

Dunlap doesn't think Sunday's performance will earn him more playing time. It arguably should. Then again, he looked nice and fresh on his two big plays, both his first of each drive. He overpowered right tackle Tom Compton on the safety and was driving Compton back when he got his left hand in front of Garoppolo's final pass, which was headed towards an open 49ers receiver at the goal line.

"All kinds of pros and cons about it, so I've just been trying to be a really good teammate and deliver what I'm supposed to do when called on," Dunlap said. "So that's what I've been working to do and that's what's been so frustrating up to this point. I haven't been able to deliver that. But I'm staying committed to the role and putting in the same work and shooting for every opportunity when given to me."