Cliff Avril: New defensive scheme limited Seahawks’ sack production

Jan 11, 2022, 11:48 AM
Seahawks DE Carlos Dunlap...
Bears QB Nick Foles is pressured by Seahawks DE Carlos Dunlap in the third quarter at Lumen Field. (Steph Chambers/Getty Images)
(Steph Chambers/Getty Images)

The Seahawks had one of the worst pass rushes in football in 2019 and the first half of 2020, but things turned around in a big way in the second half of that season as Seattle improved to finish the year seventh in the NFL in sacks.

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After that explosive finish to the year, the Seahawks brought back defensive ends Carlos Dunlap and Benson Mayowa, then went out and signed defensive end Kerry Hyder Jr., who had 8.5 sacks for the San Francisco 49ers in 2020.

The result? Even with a five-sack day in Sunday’s season finale, the Seahawks finished the 2021 season ranked 22nd in team sacks with 34.

Dunlap, a 12-year veteran, led the Seahawks with 8.5, but eight came in the team’s final six games. Hyder had 1.5 on the year Mayowa had just one.

Someone who knows all about sacking opposing quarterbacks is legendary former Seahawks defensive end Cliff Avril, who had 74 career sacks, including 34.5 in five years in Seattle. The 2016 Pro Bowler joined 710 ESPN Seattle’s Wyman and Bob last Friday before the Seahawks’ final game of the year, and among the many topics discussed in the wide-ranging 20-minute conversation, the pass rush and defense came up quite a bit.

Dave Wyman, a former NFL linebacker who is now a commentator on Seahawks radio broadcasts, asked Avril if Seattle’s defensive scheme, which was slightly different than in years past, attributed to the lack of sacks, especially by defensive ends.

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“Oh, most definitely,” Avril said. “It’s kind of a hybrid 3-4 type of situation. I’m pretty sure this is the most Carlos Dunlap has dropped back into coverage in his whole entire career.”

Dunlap has been one of the more consistent defensive ends in football since entering the league in 2010, but the Seahawks reduced his snaps this season and he was often seen dropping into coverage. Avril doesn’t agree with that kind of usage.

“Listen, we don’t get paid to go backwards, we get paid to go forwards and get after the quarterback,” he said of defensive ends.

That kind of approach, Avril said, “plays a big role in the lack of production” when it comes to tallying sacks, quarterback hits and pressures.

“When you’ve got these guys dropping back maybe 40% of the time, 30% of the time, you can’t get in the groove of the game,” he said. “You can’t keep throwing your fastball (at the offensive line) and then throw a curve or a changeup for your guy that you’re going up against if you’re dropping back into coverage from time to time.”

When it comes to sacks, Avril thinks this altered defensive scheme limited the production, but he understands why Seattle changed things up.

“But for the guys up front, and also we can tell on the back end because they go hand in hand, if you’re not getting sacks, then guess what? You’re probably getting torched over (the) top of the defense,” he said.

Someone who played a role in the Seahawks not having as many sacks in 2021 as the year before is safety Jamal Adams. The three-time All-Pro had a team-leading 9.5 sacks in 2020 in just 12 games, setting an NFL record for sacks by a defensive back in a single season, but he didn’t record any sacks in 12 games this season.

Avril said the Seahawks altered their defensive concepts because of Adams, even if it ultimately didn’t work out for him or the defensive line when it comes to rushing the quarterback.

“I think changing up the defense was actually to help Adams out being around the line of scrimmage a little bit more and being able to blitz a little bit more, just with a different front,” he said. “In a 4-3 like they were running last year, guys are moving laterally, so you can get gassed from time to time, but Adams was always able to help. But when you go to a 3-4, you’re kind of gapped out, meaning there aren’t that many holes in the offensive line when guys are penetrating.”

At the end of the day, Avril said the new defense didn’t allow the Seahawks’ top playmakers to be as productive or disruptive as they were in 2020.

Keeping an eye on 56

When Avril played for the Seahawks, he rocked the No. 56 on his jersey. As a result, he’s keeping a close eye on the man who currently has that jersey number, outside linebacker Jordyn Brooks.

“When that person wears your jersey (number) from the past, you’ve got to pay attention to him and see how good of a player he is,” Avril said.

So, what does the former No. 56 think of the new one?

“He’s been playing some really good ball,” he said.

When the interview was conducted, Brooks had 166 tackles in 16 games and had been playing all year next to perennial All-Pro Bobby Wagner, who had 170 tackles, which was the top mark in franchise history.

With Wagner injured for Sunday’s finale against Arizona, though, Brooks was everywhere and tallied 20 tackles, setting a new team record of 188.

What does Avril like about the 2020 first-round pick’s game?

“I love his energy. I love how he plays sideline to sideline,” Avril said. “I don’t necessarily know if he knows what he’s doing just yet. He’s out there (like) ‘see ball, get ball.’ But I can only imagine how much better he’s going to get once he actually can make these reads and get that experience underneath his belt. He’s been playing some really good ball and I’m excited to see what his future looks like.”

Listen to the full interview with Avril at this link or in the player below.

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