The Seahawks travel to New Orleans on Sunday, and general manager John Schneider and coach Pete Carroll must be grateful this trip is happening now. The dominant storyline in the Big Easy: Jimmy Graham’s returning to face his former team. The narrative of the trade—Seattle got the tight end and a fourth-round pick; New Orleans got Pro Bowl center Max Unger and a late first-round pick—is much friendlier to the Seahawks now than it was a year ago.
A few weeks into the 2015 season, Seattle fans were asking, Just what is the plan for Graham? The Seahawks themselves didn’t seem to know. They thought they could plug in the superstar receiver and amplify the offense they already had. The assumption was reasonable, but the theory didn’t translate into reality.
Graham had spent his career in New Orleans’s tightly structured system. Everything in that passing game happened on time and with precision. That’s the opposite of how the Seahawks and their sandlot-style quarterback Russell Wilson play. Complicating matters: when the Seahawks were tightly structured, it was with Marshawn Lynch in their smashmouth zone running game. Graham, who is really a supersized wide receiver, struggled as an in-line blocker. For much of the season, he and the Seahawks were feeling each other out.
Right when they started looking comfortable, Graham tore his patellar tendon against the Steelers in Week 12. Coincidentally, that’s also when Wilson started playing on schedule and from the pocket. It was like seeing Jackson Pollock all of a sudden paint like Rembrandt. It happened because the Seahawks, needing to camouflage their porous offensive line, spread out and emphasized an accelerated quick-strike passing game. Ball snapped, ball thrown—that was the new approach.
This has mostly continued in 2016. Wilson has rushed for only 33 yards in six games, a number that would have marked about two fourth quarter drives for him in years past. There’s been speculation that Wilson isn’t running like he used to because his knee and ankle injuries are more prohibitive than he’s admitting. But if that’s true, then consider those injuries a blessing in disguise. Wilson has been a markedly better quarterback since Week 12 of last season. Since then he has 26 touchdowns and two interceptions; he’s completing 67.3% of his passes and averaging 8.11 yards per attempt.
With his improved QB, offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell can now have a reasonable grasp on what to expect with each drop-back. This makes it easier to draw up plays that build off each other. Bevell has started diversifying his formations and calling more precise coverage-beating route combinations. Wilson, in turn, is staying in the pocket even when he’s extending plays late in the down. This comes at the expense of his freestyle playmaking, but it’s helping Seattle’s passing attack lay a reliable foundation. The main beneficiary of all this is Graham. Though maybe not fully healthy himself, he’s become the mismatch-creating chess piece that makes the trade with New Orleans finally make sense.
Graham has 27 catches this season. Fourteen have come from the slot, 10 from a regular tight end position and three on the outside. But it’s not just where the catches come from, it’s also when Graham aligns in certain places and what routes he runs from those spots. He moved around a lot last year, but there’s more deliberateness in the way Seattle is threatening defenses with him this season. He has created an especially valuable dimension to Seattle’s two-tight end sets—something we’ll likely see more of once Luke Willson returns from a knee injury.
Any defensive player will tell you that the last thing he wants to see is Graham influencing the action from a variety of different formations and alignments. With Graham’s unique talent and size, very few defenses can plan just one answer for him. He forces them to diversify and go outside of comfort zones.
This often regulates coverages, making defenses reactionary and predictable to the formation. This is especially true when Graham aligns by himself on the weak side, which has been the case on 16 of his 41 targets this season. When he’s over there, it’s very difficult for the defense to disguise its coverage. And so it becomes that much easier for Russell Wilson to play from the pocket. It’s conceivable that, with continued use of spread formations and coverage-beating route designs, Wilson can become as dangerous from the pocket as he has been out of it.
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