In what could be one of the best comeback stories in recent memory, Seahawks tight end Jimmy Graham is having an All-Pro type of season after suffering a serious knee injury in 2015. He suffered a ruptured patella tendon in his knee that required surgery and often has lasting effects on a player. Graham not only has shown no ill effects but also has surprised with his recovery time as this can take sometimes an entire year or longer to recover. Graham suffered the injury mid-way through the 2015 season and was able to return for week one of the 2016 season. And he has had a resurgent season after disappointing in 2015 pre-injury.
Coming into this match-up, Graham is tied for sixth among tight ends with 38 receptions, second with 545 yards and has three touchdowns as well. He has three games this season with at least 100 yards receiving, including last week against the Bills with eight receptions, 103 yards and two touchdowns. He was truly dominant against Buffalo and will be looking to terrorize another AFC East opponent in the Patriots. He will likely match up most of the game against the Patriots safeties, mainly Patrick Chung. Chung has had a revitalized career in his second stint with the Patriots and has played well in 2016 and is known for being one of the best cover safeties against tight ends in the league.
Chung's specialty is one-on-one coverage in the short to intermediate passing game. He mostly matches up on opposing tight ends in pass coverage and could be relied on doing that even more after the trade of Jamie Collins, who was solid in pass coverage himself. Chung may not necessarily be "elite" at any one particular aspect of his game, but he is proficient in almost everything he does. Even at 5'11", 215 pounds, he is able to keep up with some of the most dangerous and versatile pass-catchers in the the NFL at the tight end position. Whether it's his physicality at the beginning of a route or his ability to keep his assignment in front of him, he can be a nightmare for opposing teams.
With Jimmy Graham, he is no lightweight at 6'5", 265 pounds and tested out extremely well when coming in the NFL, including a 4.56 forty yard dash. With his unique size and speed, he is often a tough feat to cover over the middle of the field and especially in one-on-one situations. Luckily for the Patriots, they often use Chung in coverage against tight ends along with playing more than four defensive backs in base packages for the most part. When Graham last faced the Patriots in 2014 while with the Saints, he was shut down for zero catches on six targets. The main reason for that was using cornerback Kyle Arrington in one-on-one coverage with safety Devin McCourty over the top providing deep coverage and keeping Graham from deep, one-on-one catch opportunities.
The Patriots will likely employ a similar strategy this time around on occasion with someone like Eric Rowe (6'1", 215 lbs) due to his size compared to the other cornerbacks on the team. But the main coverage man on Graham will likely be Chung playing more towards the line of scrimmage as a slot cornerback. Chung operates better with his target in front of him as opposed to keeping up with him down the field on a deep route. One of the ways he is able to keep that the case is Chung plays closely to the line of scrimmage and makes sure to try and throw his assignment off their route by being physically close to the line. That way, he is able to slow down their route and throw off their timing as well while establishing the advantage early on.
In the scenario that Graham has lines up in the slot instead of closer to the line, we could see a cornerback like Rowe line up on him with Chung back in coverage. He would be able to provide assistance over the top and prevent Graham from having an easy time with any deep contested situations. The Seahawks have shown at times to have three or more wide receivers lined up, including Graham and have all of them run deep routes, which would allow Graham to usually be open underneath on a crossing route. It forces opposing teams to drop many back in coverage and allow for someone like Graham to have open space after the catch in the middle of the field to pick up a good amount of yards after the catch.
One of the biggest issues for opposing teams is Graham's size, which allows for him to win a lot of contested situations because of how much taller he is than who is covering him. Even in tight coverage, Russell Wilson can easily have a pass intended to go over a normal sized receiver but it be a perfect scenario for Graham. He can use his long arms to catch passes that even a defender can't get a hand on but also allow for Wilson to have some space to work with because of Graham's large catch radius. The key here will be Chung's physicality at the line of scrimmage, throwing Graham off of his route and lowering his chance to be looked at in the play.
Overall, the best way for Chung to prevent Graham from being as effective as he has been this season is attacking him early at the line of scrimmage and shutting down his route-running ability. If Graham is thrown off his route and unable to be looked at as often in the passing game, it's going to be harder for the Seahawks passing game to have a good game. Graham's size plays to his strength, so taking away his ability to use it as an advantage will also be key in this game as well. The Patriots have been able to slow down Graham in the past and will need to do again in order to put away a solid Seahawks squad on Sunday night.