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Preseason preview: Denver Broncos tight ends present biggest challenge for Seahawks defense

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BRONCOS SEAHAWKS Photo by Joe Amon/The Denver Post via Getty Images

The preseason can be dull and an exercise in avoiding injury. The scheme is vanilla; the product is poor; and the players get hurt. Yet these games are everything for players trying to make an NFL roster. Furthermore, opponents are often so stacked at one position that you get to see the Seattle Seahawks’ third stringers go up against one of the league’s best.

We’re talking about teams with guys who will be troublesome in the fourth quarter. Dudes on the bottom end of the roster that will get cut and then immediately be picked up by another team. Think peak-Seattle depth, when the waiving of guys like Jaye Howard and Spencer Ware was made to look foolish—both by the pesky Chiefs.

This Preseason preview mini-series will assess the deepest, most problematic position for a Seahawks unit to face—read it as a “one thing to look for” viewing guide. For example: In Seattle’s case, the linebacker position is the deepest and most challenging for opponents. Linebackers the Seahawks cut as they whittle their roster down to 53 will get snapped up by the rest of the league. The NFL is always watching.

Denver Broncos—Thursday 08/08 7pm PDT

First up is a look at Thursday night’s opponent: The Denver Broncos. A chance to avenge that Demaryius Thomas robbery “catch.” A chance for Paxton Lynch revenge—over/under 2.5 interceptions? A chance for Seattle to be tested by a deep position.

The Broncos have a few candidates for “toughest and deepest position group to face.” On the defensive front, the speed of lower string, rookie EDGE rushers like Malik Reed plus Justin Hollins may trouble Seattle’s lower string offensive lines—such EDGE profiles are similar to what the Seahawks will face from divisional opponents the Cardinals and the Rams. Corner also looks typically strong; Vic Fangio will get creative (for the preseason).

However, the offensive side of the ball appears to contain some deeper, more challenging units for the Seahawks to face. Though the quarterback position looks like the same failure from John Elway, the style of Denver’s attack will still stress Seattle’s defense. Everything is layered off the outside zone run game, with plenty of play-action bootlegs. This makes running back a strong candidate for the toughest challenge. This is especially true given the RB room looks at least four players featuring Phillip Lindsay, Royce Freeman, Devontae Booker, Theo Riddick and Khalfani Muhammad.

Yet it’s the tight end position that most intrigued/troubled in the Hall of Fame game. TE, full of players fighting for their spot in the depth chart, therefore wins the “biggest” challenge title. From a pass-catching standpoint, Noah Fant looks like the move-piece that can beat linebackers. The rookie first-rounder is still looking to prove his mismatch talents and enjoyed some choice-routes opportunities against Atlanta. At 249lbs, Fant ran a 4.5 40-yard dash, a 6.81 3-cone and leaped 39.5” vertically. He’s not just a gifted athlete, showing Iowa-effort in his run-blocking and intelligence in his route-running.

Behind him is more investment and more “move-type” tight ends:

  • There is Jeff Heuerman, a somewhat inferior move-type picked in the 2015 3rd round. Coming from Ohio State, Heuerman won a 2015 national championship and do-it-all at the position (nursing a shoulder injury so may be limited)
  • Then comes Jake Butt. Butt was some draftniks’ number one tight end in 2017 before tearing his ACL in Michigan’s bowl game. He tragically tore his ACL again in 2018. His blocking effort came into question in the pre-draft process and he’s going to miss tonight’s game with an ankle injury
  • 2018 5th-rounder Troy Fumagalli also needs to show his blocking skill after the former-Wisconsin Badger missed his rookie year due to a sports hernia injury
  • 2019 UDFA Austin Fort out of Wyoming tested with a 4.56 forty and 6.80 3 cone at 6ft 4, 238lbs and will be looking to capitalize on the absence of Butt

The make up of the position group inspired the tweet below:

For Denver’s attack, the tight ends in 12 personnel (1 running back, 2 tight ends and 2 wide receivers) have to prove first and foremost that they can run block to keep the defense in base (3 linebackers) personnel. Elway’s decision to have a TE group that would all fall in the “move” category shows he’s hungry to punish linebackers in the passing game. These tight ends flashing their receiving ability feels like an easier task. This Broncos group is talented enough to do both, even as you delve down into the lower strings.

The style of offense run by the Broncos is designed to cause hesitation among second-level defenders. Everything is supposed to look the same to the linebackers. The tight ends, though being better at receiving, are designed to be versatile types. Whether it is run or play-action, the offensive line will be acting like it’s outside zone. It’s then that the tight end group will punish, coming to knock Seattle defenders over or leak into the flats for an easy reception on a bootleg pass.

The Seahawks, without Bobby Wagner, will be looking at which of their linebackers can: diagnose plays quickly; attack the run; and also deal with tight ends in the passing game. Seattle will probably have their linebackers man up with the position to see how they match-up, but the tight ends will also test the drop-spacing of the four underneath zones that make up the Seahawks’ base cover 3 pass defense. Not allowing the TEs to fool them will be the key to success and may prove difficult in what is a much quicker game of football compared to college.

The linebacker group for Seattle is full of vicious competition and it will be interesting to see who can emerge—hopefully younger dudes like Shaquem Griffin, Cody Barton and Ben Burr-Kirven thrive. Thursday night is a great test against such a deep TE group. Expect the Seahawks to also show some big nickel looks, meaning opportunities for young safeties like Marquise Blair to match-up with bigger targets. It will also be a scouting opportunity for General Manager John Schneider given the crisis of injuries at the Seahawks’ own TE position.