Noah Fant, Will Dissly, Colby Parkinson give Seahawks new, 3-tight-end threat vs. 49ers
The Seahawks and 49ers know each other better than some brothers.
They NFC West rivals have played twice each season for the last 20 years. Two current Seahawks played for San Francisco recently: wide receiver Marquise Goodwin and defensive back Teez Tabor. Seattle coach Pete Carroll used to be defensive coordinator for the 49ers. He is a native of across the Golden Gate Bridge from San Francisco, in Marin County. So is Seahawks offensive tackle Jake Curhan. He went to Carroll’s Bay Area high school, Redwood High in Larkspur.
But for this 48th all-time meeting, the Seahawks have some new things for the Niners.
After 10 years with Russell Wilson going 17-4 against the 49ers as the Seahawks’ quarterback, Geno Smith makes his second start as Wilson’s successor Sunday against San Francisco (0-1) at Levi’s Stadium (1:05 p.m., Channel 13).
Carroll has changed the 4-3 defense he has coached since the 1970s to a faster, younger, more varied 3-4. That will be quarterback Trey Lance’s responsibility to decipher in his second game replacing Jimmy Garoppolo as San Francisco’s starter.
Meanwhile, the 49ers’ defense has to figure out who’s going where and what run gaps to cover in a new, potentially far-reaching change to the Seahawks’ offense: formations with three tight ends.
Noah Fant had the attention entering this season for being the number-one tight end Seattle acquired as part of its mammoth trade of Wilson to Denver in March.
Will Dissly raised eyebrows when he re-signed with the Seahawks for three years and $24 million, above what most saw as his market value.
Colby Parkinson, who played his college football near Levi’s Stadium at Stanford, is finally healthy after two frustrating seasons. The 6-foot-7 tight end caught his first career touchdown pass Monday night in Seattle’s 17-16 win over the Broncos.
Fant, Dissly and Parkinson are making the Seahawks’ offense trickier and potentially more dynamic — by playing at the same time. They did it more last week against Denver than in any Seahawks game in memory. And the tight ends scored Seattle’s only two touchdowns in the win.
“There’s a lot of versatility in the formations,” Carroll said of three tight-end sets. “A lot of people think you are just loading up to run the ball down the field, but there’s so many edges and things that you can create, with the motions and the shifts and stuff, as well as the opportunity to throw the ball.
“We have a really versatile group.”
The biggest downside to using three tight ends? It takes one or two faster wide receivers off the field. The Seahawks used their first pick in the 2021 draft on Dee Eskridge because of his outside speed. Finally healthy after a rookie season sidelined with a major concussion, Eskridge played just five snaps in the opener. Goodwin is a former member of the U.S. Olympic track team.
The biggest advantage to using formations with three tight ends? Cornerbacks and outside linebackers face uncomfortable positions and unfamiliar choices.
“It does create other issues for the corners,” Carroll said. “Also for how teams want to play their guys on the edge, whether they are defensive ends or outside backers, it creates more issues for them. They don’t have as much freedom to come flying off the ball. ...
“It still feels early in our development, and as we figure out who can make things happen for us, (but) we certainly have a nice option here.”
3 tight ends worked vs. Denver
Offensive coordinator Shane Waldron’s game plan against Denver was to neutralize the strength of its defense, its cornerbacks and outside coverage. He featured the tight ends, putting the Broncos’ edge players in a bind.
Seahawks tight ends caught six passes for 98 yards and two touchdowns from Smith — in the first half.
It was the first time in Dissly’s five seasons with the Seahawks two different tight ends caught touchdown passes in the same game.
“It’s awesome,” said Dissly, a former Washington Huskies defensive lineman. “All three of us love to block, and are definitely capable in the pass game.
“I think it just puts defenses on high alert for a lot of different kinds of plays. It forces them to think a little more than they’re used to, play stuff differently than ‘11 personnel.’
“I think it’s good — good for us.”
Dissly said a big challenge for a defense is cornerbacks that aren’t used to having run-gap responsibilities: getting assigned one of the extra, outside lanes three tight ends create. Cornerbacks don’t like that. They get paid to sprint into space and defend wide receivers and passes.
“There’s more gaps to play, so the DBs have to get involved in the run game,” Dissly said. “I think there’s mismatches...blocking the smaller guys.”
The three tight ends were just part of the new looks Waldron gave the Broncos. The Seahawks also debuted a pistol formation of shorter shotgun with Geno Smith in front of running back Rashaad Penny.
A third new formation for Seattle was a variation of that pistol, with Fant and Dissly in line with and flanking Smith at the snap. They showed that on the first drive of the game.
That series ended with consecutive plays featuring the tight ends. The Seahawks put Fant, Dissly and Parkinson tight left on the line as a diversion, then ran Penny away from them for a gain of 4 yards. On the next play, third and 2 at the Denver 38, Dissly lined up tight on left end in more typical “11 personnel”: shotgun formation and with three wide receivers, one tight end and a single running back, Travis Homer, offset to Smith’s right.
The Broncos blitzed in free on Smith’s left. They dropped usual edge rusher Bradley Chubb into the left flat. But Smith escaped the sack. The quarterback tucked the ball under his arm and sprinted to the line of scrimmage, as if he was going to try to run for the first down. Chubb, assigned to cover Dissly in the short zone to the left, ran up to defend Smith appearing to run. Smith then deftly flipped a pass over Chubb to Dissly. He was alone at the 23-yard line.
All the other Seahawks receivers, including Tyler Lockett running a cross from left to right, had taken their Broncos defenders to the opposite side of the field. No one was behind Dissly. He could have walked in for the 38-yard score. Seattle had a quick lead and the Lumen Field crowd off the hook 2 1/2 minutes into the season.
The Seahawks successfully confused Denver’s coverage.
“They played zone-mash (coverage). So when Lockett goes across the field they kind of have to communicate,” Dissly said. “I think they dropped an end and he triggered when Geno scrambled a bit.
“It was just a blown coverage. It’s one of those ones where you say, ‘Just catch it.’... You feel like that ball is in the air for a really long time.”
Dissly said it was the second-easiest touchdown he’s ever had. The first one was for Bozeman High School in Montana.
“I had a pick-six. I was playing defensive end. I didn’t rush because I was too tired,” Dissly said. “The guy threw it right to me, and I just ran and scored.
“So that was pretty easy.”
Smith’s second touchdown pass of the half, with 2 minutes left in the second quarter, began with another new Seahawks look. Parkinson was a wing inside on-the-line Tyler Lockett on the right edge. Dissly lined up to Smith’s right in the pistol formation, with Penny behind the quarterback.
Lockett ran a drag route from right across the field to the left. Parkinson ran down the right slot against Denver’s zone coverage, at Broncos linebacker Jonas Griffith. Griffith stayed underneath Parkinson. Smith perfectly lofted his pass over Griffith onto Parkinson’s hands in stride for the 25-yard touchdown.
Parkinson’s first touchdown of his three-year career gave the Seahawks a 17-10 lead. They held that edge the rest of the tense night.
The fourth-round draft pick by Seattle in 2020 out of Stanford threw the ball to a Seahawks equipment man on the sideline for safe keeping.
“Oh, I’ve got it. I’m holding onto that one,” Parkinson said.
It’s headed into a case back home in Simi Valley, California.
Why Colby Parkinson is emerging
Carroll, Waldron and the Seahawks don’t expect it to be the last touchdown of Parkinson’s season. The 6-foot-7 target has the potential to be a problem for smaller defenders on third downs and in the red zone — particularly if Waldron keeps using the three tight-end formations to move Parkinson around into favorable matchups.
Parkinson played a lot of three tight ends in college, at Stanford. But he was usually in the slot, outside as a receiving-first tight end. Part of the reason he’s emerging as a bigger force in the Seahawks’ offense this season, beyond finally staying healthy, is he’s vastly improved his run blocking since he first came into the NFL.
“I think we all present all different abilities out there,” Parkinson said. “We can all run block; we’ve shown that we can do that. And we can all catch the ball. So they can’t really account for everything that we can do.
“So we can throw a lot of different looks at them and have a lot of success.”
Parkinson laughed and smiled when asked about the mismatches he’s seeing so far when Seattle goes into three tight ends: 250-pound guys versus 190-pound littler guys.
“Oh, yeah,” Parkinson said, chuckling, “it’s great. I love the match-ups we get from three tight ends. More gaps, and they can’t really account for all of us running routes as well as blocking.
“It’s kind of one or the other.”
Or, with the Seahawks’ current array of tight ends, all three.