Look Who’s Back: The Return of Jimmy Graham

A play-making tight end can create mismatches and wreak havoc upon the secondaryMatty Brown breaks down the ways in which Jimmy Graham is influencing the Seattle Seahawks offense after recovering from what many considered a catastrophic injury.

To understand what Jimmy Graham has done, it is important to consider all of his time in the Pacific Northwest.

In early 2015, Seattle’s offense struggled to operate effectively. Their offensive line looked atrocious and the trade for Graham was ridiculed. Giving up a first-round pick and All-Pro starting center Max Unger to the New Orleans Saints for the tight end, Seattle was viewed as foolish. People thought this to be a mistake akin to trading for Percy Harvin. Like with Harvin, offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell seemed unsure of how to use his latest weapon, and the offense appeared to be forcing the ball to Graham with limited success.

Chemistry grew between quarterback Russell Wilson and Graham, while the Seahawks’ blocking improved as they spread out their attack. Then, in the tight end’s best game of 2015, disaster. Graham, who had eight receptions for 140 yards, tore his patellar tendon and was ruled out for the rest of the season, perhaps longer. This being an injury which had seemingly ended Victor Cruz’s career, fan expectations were at an all-time low for the remainder of Graham’s contract. As a result, there was marked surprise at Graham’s progress over the offseason and active status in Week 1 of 2016.

It was in Week 3 when things really started rolling. Taken off a snap-count limit, Graham was unleashed against the 49ers after being eased into the season. He caught six passes for 100 yards and a touchdown. In comparison to the home game against San Francisco, Seattle’s trip to MetLife Stadium was viewed as a far more challenging encounter. In what was seen by bookmakers as effectively a pick’em game, Seattle faced a formidable Jetsdefensive front — evoking memories of its offensive disaster in its Week 2, 9-3 loss in Los Angeles.

Yet Graham’s form continued, and he became the first Seahawks tight end to record back-to-back 100 yard games in Seattle’s 27-17 win. This was in spite of him suffering back spasms in practices leading up to the game.

On Graham’s first catch of the game, Wilson (#3) sees the Jets showing a single-high safety look and a five-man pass rush pre-snap. With safety Calvin Pryor (#25) also coming down to the left side of the offensive line, Wilson makes a check at the line. This may be related to pass protection, or it could be altering Graham’s route to a hot route. Graham (#88) is lined up as a split end, facing a clear size mismatch in 5’11” cornerback Marcus Williams (#20). To the right of the formation, Seattle runs a sail concept, designed to create natural separation against man coverage or generate a “pick your poison” situation for a Cover 3 defense. Expecting the offensive line to be blitzed and struggle, Wilson throws a perfectly placed back shoulder fade to Graham, dissecting the Jets’ Cover 1 pass defense. This throw, delivered very quickly, renders the Jets’ five-man blitz ineffective. The tight end comes up with a great one-handed catch, using his arm to cunningly shield away the defender for a 17-yard gain.

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Graham’s second catch of the game was in a fairly similar situation to the first. Before the snap, the Jets are showing a five-man rush, with safety Pryor (#25) in a position to blitz the C gap. In terms of coverage, it appears to be man. The Cover 1 defense that the Jets utilize has rookie linebacker, and first-round pick, Darron Lee covering Graham. The rest of the defense is manned-up as well, aside from safety Marcus Gilchrist (#21) who rotates to cover the deep middle-third of the field. Seattle runs two slants out of its stacks alignment to the left of its shotgun formation. To the right, Christine Michael (#32) picks up the blitzing Pryor, Doug Baldwin (#89) runs a quick out route and Graham runs a fade/corner route. Wilson decides pre-snap that he likes the matchup of Graham on Lee, and throws the ball as soon as Graham is level with the linebacker. Lee — who’s had a good season so far — is actually in excellent position coverage-wise. However, Wilson places the ball perfectly, where only Graham can catch it. It is a brilliant throw, and a great catch by Graham.

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Here, yet again, the Jets appear to be hinting at a rush of five defenders, with a safety down in the box. Seattle’s motion of Baldwin from the slot to tailback, into a pistol-type formation, forces the Jets’ linebackers to shift. This likely indicates to the offense that the opposition is in a form of zone coverage. As the ball is snapped, the Jets appear to be in a Cover 3 defense – something which Graham’s seam route would causes issues for in an ordinary situation. However, the Jets’ entire defense is focused on Baldwin’s motion and the run-fake, thinking the play is a run or a screen. Seattle likes to use a lot of quick bubble screens, and the Jets struggle with passes thrown behind the line of scrimmage. Strong safety Pryor and the linebackers are sucked into the play-design, and Graham is wide open up the seam for a nice 17-yard gain.

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Graham’s fourth reception of the game finds him lined up in the slot, with the Seahawks running a gun spread trips formation. The Jets show Cover 1 before the snap, with Gilchrist lined up as a single high safety. . Indeed, after the snap, the Jets do play Cover 1. The Seahawks’ drive concept, with Baldwin running a deep in route and Graham a shallow crossing route, results in Graham being wide open for the 12-yard completion. This is because Pryor, in man coverage with Graham, is blocked off from being able to come down on the route and close the huge amount of space due to being legally obstructed by Baldwin.

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Facing a 2nd and 6 situation, with 13.41 left in the fourth quarter, Seattle comes out in a five receiver, spread formation in an attempt to extend its 17-10 lead. Graham is positioned in the slot, and the Jets are showing a two-man under look. Another noteworthy thing is the wide 9 alignment of defensive end Sheldon Richardson (#91). As Richardson pushes left tackle Bradley Sowell (#78) almost back into Wilson, the quarterback registers that the Jets are in man coverage. The route combination called by Bevell is the perfect man beater, with each side of the formation having switch/scissor-type concepts present. Graham, being covered well by Lee, has little separation but Wilson shows complete trust in his tight end, throwing it up where Graham can take advantage of his 6’6” height over the 6’1” Lee. The throw is perfect, and Graham makes an outstanding catch to record a 24-yard reception.

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Post-game, Lee was questioned about his struggles with the pure size disadvantage:

The second one [the previous video] was a little bit of a shock because I felt that was pretty decent coverage at least. On the first one, Russ put it in a nice place for him to make a play and that’s what he does for that team. He puts them in position to make plays.

Graham’s final reception of the game came when perhaps Seattle was hoping to extend its two-touchdown advantage. With a 24-10 lead, and a third and 11 situation early in the fourth quarter, a punt in this situation would have offered the Jets a chance of getting back into the game. As a result, Todd Bowles dials up some exotic pressure on this third down. The Jets’ linebackers are sugaring the A gaps. Meanwhile, Pryor is in a position to blitz the C gap again. Just before the snap, Pryor rotates back to cover the deep middle third, and left cornerback Darrelle Revis (#24) is sent on a blitz. Wilkerson is dropped back to cover the middle third. The curls and streak run by the trio of wide receivers to the right of the formation creates a huge amount of space underneath for Graham. The Seahawks pass protection also deserves credit, with the blitz being picked up well. This gives Wilson plenty of time to pick out the wide-open Graham, who picks up the first down with impressive yard-after-catch ability.

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What is clear from the Seahawks’ win in New Jersey is the trust and chemistry that is present between quarterback and tight end. This has not gone unnoticed by head coach Pete Carroll, who remarked in his post-game presser: “You can see Russell believing in him.” Graham himself feels it:

He believes in me, he really believes in me, sometimes when a guy is running with me, like right next to me, he just believes if he gets me the ball, I’m going to make a play. There were a couple of special plays where he just had that belief in me and threw it up.

This has developed from the start of the season. In Week 2 in Los Angeles, Wilson had various situations where he could have given Graham the opportunity to win a contested ball, but chose to play more conservative. Here’s an example:

Graham appears to have lost none of the athleticism he possessed before his injury, and seems fully settled in the Seahawks’ attack. He seems more like a Seahawk, rather than an offensive player looking slightly out of place, unfamiliar with his surroundings. Rather than looking like an artificial limb that the body is not quite used to, he now looks fully assimilated. He is even getting better at blocking, even if his struggles with in-line blocking still persist. Graham has managed to go from being a tragic potential early retirement, to a crucial offensive weapon in one of the NFL’s best teams. Remarkable.

Follow Matthew on Twitter @mattyfbrown. Check out Matt’s other work here, such as what RBs to watch in the SECthe Pac 12, and the Big 12, and on Kenneth Dixon and what the Ravens should expect from him this season.

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All film courtesy of NFL GamePass.

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