Jimmy Graham is the latest big-play tight end to test Seahawks defense

Posted Nov 29, 2013

The Seahawks already have faced Vernon Davis and Tony Gonzalez, and came away smiling. Now comes a tight end who possesses a combination of their talents in the Saints’ Jimmy Graham.

In their home opener against San Francisco back in September, the Seahawks held Vernon Davis to three receptions for 20 yards. In their Week 10 victory at Atlanta, the Seahawks limited Tony Gonzalez to three catches for 29 yards.

Those are the same tight ends who have averaged 5.5 receptions for 58 yards, and also scored nine touchdowns, (Gonzalez); and 3.5 receptions for 60 yards (Davis) in their other 10 games for the Falcons and 49ers.

Now comes Jimmy Graham, who leads not only the New Orleans Saints but every tight end in the league in receptions (65), receiving yards (946) and touchdown catches (11) entering Monday night’s nationally televised game at CenturyLink Field.

Asked about the job the Seahawks’ No. 2-ranked defense did on Davis and Gonzalez in the context of what it will need to do against Graham, coach Pete Carroll offered, “It’s good that you mentioned both those guys, because those guys are different – you see Davis getting down field and running routes as a wide receiver; and Tony is way more in the intermediate areas where he works and gets his job done.

“So we see a combination of Jimmy in that, because he is a ball control-type guy, but he’s also a big-play guy. And they know that, and they utilize him and you have to be on it the whole time. Because when you least expect it, he pops out and they try and kill you downfield. I think he’s kind of a combination of those guys.”

Graham the ball-control guy has 20 third-down receptions, which ties him for seventh in the league. Graham the big-play guy – the one who can run 40 yards in 4.53 seconds – is averaging more on this other 45 receptions (15.6 yards) than he is on those drive-sustaining catches (12.2). He has receptions of 56, 51, 44 and 43 yards. He has at least one TD catch in seven of the Saints’ 11 games. He has six games with at least 100 receiving yards, including a 179-yard performance. He has two games with 10 receptions and two more with nine.

He is, obviously, a handful.

“We have to cover him in multiple ways,” Carroll said. “There are a lot of things we have to do to get that done. It takes everything we have to slow a guy down like this.”

And opponents already have tried just about everything. The Patriots covered Graham with cornerback Aqib Talib. How’d that workout? Graham’s stat line in the Saints’ first loss the season: 0 catches for 0 yards on six targets.

“It’s no mystery,” Saints QB Drew Brees said this week. “They just matched Aqib Talib on him. He did a good job, and I don’t feel like we did a very good job of putting Jimmy in opportunities to get open and that kind of thing.”

Just don’t expect a steady diet of All-Pro cornerback Richard Sherman and his 6-foot-5½ wingspan combating everything that Graham brings to the Saints’ offense.

“You can take several things away about the physicality that Aqib played Jimmy with – the way he just stood there for the challenge, he didn’t back off, he didn’t soft shoe, he stood there and battled with him,” Sherman said. “But schematically, we’re totally different defenses. So we’ll play him totally different.

“We try not to tailor our whole defense for one person. We feel like we have the players and the scheme and we should be able to play everybody straight up. He’s a great player, but they’ve got other great players.”     

Sherman does see the similarities between Davis and Gonzalez that Carroll mentioned.

“The way the Falcons use Tony Gonzalez is similar to the way the Saints use Jimmy Graham,” Sherman said. “Obviously Jimmy Graham may be a step faster, a little bit more athletic at this point in his career. But they use him similarly. They try to get him the ball and create mismatches. That’s what makes him effective.”

And productive.

“He’s a tremendous talent in that he’s a ball-control catcher and he’s a downfield threat that causes problems,” Carroll said. “They use him in numerous ways. They move him all around. They shift him. They use him inside and outside.

“And Drew knows that he can throw the ball at him with coverage all over him and he can still make plays. And he’s a fast guy as well, and they totally know how to use his talents.”

And that starts with getting Graham the ball as often as possible. That’s why Brees has targeted his 6-foot-7, 265-pound tight end 97 times.