Seahawks Must Get Creative with Jimmy Graham to Elevate Offense

Cian FaheyFeatured ColumnistAugust 7, 2015

USA Today

John Schneider and Pete Carroll have earned the benefit of the doubt with the Seattle Seahawks.

Their success as a duo in turning the franchise around over such a short period has been phenomenal. It's primarily the result of being aggressive, entertaining every possible idea and understanding how to put players in the best positions to succeed on the field.

When the franchise acquired Jimmy Graham in the offseason, there was little doubt to deal with. Now that Graham is talking about blocking 75 percent of the time, there's reason for doubt.

The Seattle Times shared Graham's comments:

Now here I'm blocking quite a bit, and I love it. It's very important to me to be a part of that here. That's about 75 percent of the offense here. When you have a back like that, you want to be in there on those explosive runs, and you want to be a part of that.

The Seahawks won't run the ball 75 percent of the time, but Graham also won't play every snap, so how they use him isn't necessarily in line with how they run their whole offense. What is concerning is how much emphasis the Seahawks appear to be putting on blocking for Graham.

The franchise appears to be treating him as a tight end like any other it's ever had. The problem is, he's not like any other tight end it's had.

Schneider and Carroll didn't invest a first-round pick in Graham for him to upgrade their running game as a blocker. He was brought in to diversify and strengthen the passing game. Graham is a willing blocker, and he was a better blocker when he was fully healthy two years ago than he was last season, but he's not a good blocker.

Despite being officially designated a tight end, Graham has always been an oversized receiver who just happened to line up tight to the formation

Even more than that, Graham isn't a good receiving tight end in the position's traditional sense. Graham doesn't excel working the middle of the field; he's a deep threat and matchup problem against cornerbacks, safeties and linebackers in space.

Last season, Graham only worked the middle of the field with consistent success when the Saints stretched the defense horizontally with five receivers. Often on those plays, he ran a simple curl route into wide-open space.

Fifty-four of Graham's receptions last season came against zone coverage when he wasn't pressed at the line of scrimmage. Forty-five of those 54 receptions came when he lined up either as a tight end or in the slot. He ran 17 curl routes on those plays.

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Late against the Dallas Cowboys, Graham caught a touchdown pass on a curl route over the middle of the field. The impact of the Saints' alignment on the Cowboys defense could be seen at the snap. Their five-receiver formation forced the Cowboys to spread out their second-level defenders.

Graham was left with a vast amount of space to work in over the middle of the field.

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Drew Brees keeps his eyes away from Graham at the beginning of the play; he keeps his eyes on the two receivers to the left who are releasing vertically downfield. This draws the right-sided linebacker further toward the far sideline.

The route combinations on this play pulled the defense even further away from the middle of the field after the ball was snapped.

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Graham settled into the space that opened in front of him. Brees quickly checked the ball down to him, and he had so much space that he could turn without any defender closing on him. From there, he used his athleticism to dive into the end zone ahead of the recovering defenders.

Athleticism is so much more valuable in space than it is in tight areas. Running crossing routes and curls into space before continuing upfield is how Graham wins. When he needs to make more nuanced plays in tight, he struggles.

The Seahawks didn't look to spread the field as much as they could have last year. FieldGulls.com's Danny Kelly provided stats for the Seahawks' offensive personnel groupings:

A major issue for Graham was his lack of reliability at the catch point. Working back to the ball, adjusting to lower passes and simply completing catches were repeated issues all season long.

Tracking Graham's targets revealed that he caught 88 total passes, including receptions negated by penalty, last season. Even though his high volume needs to be taken into account, Graham's 22 failures at the catch point was an incredibly large number. He left a huge number of plays on the field.

He can't be a possession receiver or reliable middle-of-the-field target because of that inconsistency. That doesn't mean he's not still very valuable when used correctly. Graham needs to work continuous routes across the field or down the seam after play action.

Those are the types of things the Seahawks have done with their tight ends in recent years, but they also need to work to isolate Graham with cornerbacks by alignment.

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Last season, 71 of Graham's 88 receptions came away from a tight end alignment. He was regularly in the receiver's stance or moving to different areas of the field for matchup purposes. On these three plays, he lined up outside the numbers.

Graham works the sideline on each of these plays, but he beats the defensive back in different ways each time.

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The first comes against the Atlanta Falcons. The defensive back plays aggressive, press-man coverage from the start of the play. Graham forces his way through his outside shoulder to push his way down the sideline.

Once there, the ball doesn't arrive, so he fights through the defender's body again to break back infield. This creates separation and positioning for Graham when Brees throws him the ball.

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The second play isolates Graham against Cleveland Browns cornerback Joe Haden. Haden approached the line of scrimmage as the ball was snapped, but he didn't play aggressive coverage against the bigger tight end. This allowed Haden to stay in a good position to cover Graham.

However, it also gave Graham an opportunity to comfortably turn and locate the ball when it was in the air. This became a jump-ball situation that Haden had no chance of winning.

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For the third play, Graham was lined up to the left of the formation against Tre Boston. Boston tried to jam Graham at the line, but Graham used his strength to knock him aside before widening his release. This gave him a clear route to the sideline.

Graham used his speed to pull away from Boston after beating him at the line of scrimmage. Brees dropped the ball over his shoulder, and Graham tracked it perfectly into his hands for a big play.

Although he didn't run an in-breaking route by design on any of these plays, Graham was able to win in different ways with his physical attributes. These types of plays are indefensible for cornerbacks. Graham is simply too big and too athletic to be handled by players who are built to cover quicker, shorter receivers.

What makes Graham even tougher to stop is that he can also run slant routes and break his routes infield more naturally on occasion. He's less effective working that way, but it's another layer of his game that defensive coordinators have to try to account for.

His value as a matchup piece is huge for situational football and at the goal line. It's that and his explosiveness for big plays downfield that make him so valuable. 

Over his first five NFL seasons, Graham has 60 plays that went for 20 or more yards and nine plays that went for 40 or more yards. He had five plays of 40-plus yards in 2013, but none in 2014, and 19 plays of 20-plus yards in 2013, but only eight in 2014.

That drop-off is partially reflective of Graham leaving plays on the field and partially reflective of his quarterback not providing him with as effective service.

Although Brees will likely always be considered a better pure passer than Wilson, the Seahawks quarterback does throw a more impressive deep ball. He hasn't, however, had a receiver like Graham to show off his deep touch and arm strength before.

Graham can simply sprint down the middle of the field from the slot to clear out space for teammates or get on top of safeties to win at the catch point. He can also run precise double moves that are difficult for defensive backs to cover because they need to be aggressive to overcome his size on out routes.

For this 22-yard touchdown reception against the Green Bay Packers last season, that is what Graham did.

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Before the snap, Graham motions behind the line of scrimmage to move into the left slot. He is uncovered coming off the line of scrimmage, but cornerback Tramon Williams has followed him across the field. This suggests to Brees that Graham is going to be working against man coverage.

This is ideal for the route he is going to run.

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Graham is going to miss Sean Payton; that's for sure. The coach's play design was important here as Graham's pre-snap motion put Williams in a position where he had to recover after the snap to defend the out route. This forced Williams to be more aggressive in his actions.

A more aggressive Williams meant Graham had an easier route. But the tight end still showed off impressive body control to sell the out route before turning downfield away from the cornerback.

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Brees' pass was bad. It was catchable, but it was bad. The ball arrived behind Graham and to his outside shoulder. An ideal pass would have led Graham further upfield and would have kept the ball either in line with him or slightly to the inside.

Tracking the ball early in the play allowed Graham to recognize its flight. By recognizing its flight, he could adjust his body and reach above the defensive back to complete the touchdown pass.

Wilson shouldn't put Graham in these kinds of situations as often as Brees did, but when he does, the tight end will be able to complement his quarterback well. It's still early, but Graham believes he and Wilson already have developed a strong connection (via FieldGulls.com):

It's been pretty instant. ... So far, so good. I mean, it's been amazing—him learning me and what some of my hints are when I'm going to break and me understanding him, where he's going to place the ball and what he likes in the routes. It's been great so far, and we haven't even run the red zone yet.

At this stage, any connections should be taken with a grain of salt, but Graham's optimism does make sense considering both players' strengths and weaknesses.

Schneider and Carroll have done more good than bad with the Seahawks to this point. Their most significant miss may be trading for Percy Harvin, and that failed on the field because they couldn't figure out the best way to use Harvin's natural ability as a receiver.

They forced him into more of a gadget role, forgetting what it was that made him a special player in the first place. Some overcorrection may be coming after that mistake if Seattle simply uses Graham as a tight end the way it has other players.

With a player of this kind, however, there is a balance that must be struck. Finding it will be key for the Seahawks to elevate their offense as a whole.

 

All statistics unless otherwise stated were gleaned from the author's own tape study.