Seattle Seahawks TE Jimmy Graham was once regarded as the second-best tight end in the NFL, behind only New England Patriots TE Rob Gronkowski. When Graham played for the Saints, he and QB Drew Brees connected for 99 receptions, 1,310 passing yards, and 11 touchdowns in 2011, and posted a 1,215 yard and 16 touchdown All Pro season in 2013.
The Seahawks acquired Graham after losing to the Patriots in Super Bowl XLIX with the idea that the tight end would help Seattle’s red zone production. Graham got off to a rocky start since his finesse style of play didn’t align with the power offense of the Seahawks, but he has improved his blocking.
It also didn’t help that Graham ruptured his patellar tendon late in 2015, sidelining him for the entirety of the summer and the bulk of the preseason.
Graham played a limited role in the season opener against the Dolphins, shook off some rust in week 2 against the Rams, and has been a dominant force ever since. He averaged a hair under 6 receptions for 90 yards over the next four games, before injuries decimated the Seahawks quarterback, offensive line, and running backs, stifling the offensive production against the Saints.
Graham was back at it this past week against the Bills, collecting 8 receptions for 103 yards and 2 touchdowns.
“[Graham is a] very big, long, receiving-type tight end who has actually improved a lot as a blocker,” Patriots defensive coordinator Matt Patricia said this week. “Obviously this offense will spend a lot of time with the run game, something that he’s definitely improved on. He’s got great length, great size.
“They put him in some different positions, they do some things formationally, you’ll see him on the back side of a lot of formations whether he’s attached to the formation or split out which kind of puts the defense in a little bit of a bind. Back there on the back side he obviously becomes a matchup player. You can identify if he’s singled up on the back side or if he has help which allows the quarterback to be able to get a pre-snap read as far as what they’re getting on the back side.”
When you watch Graham, the Seahawks have a few ways they like to use him against match-ups. If the defense shows zone coverage, Graham will split the linebackers and sit in front of the safety for an easy catch. If the defense shows man with a linebacker, Graham will try to run a horizontal route to separate from the defender out of the break. If the man coverage is by a defensive back, Graham runs down the field and QB Russell Wilson will throw a jump ball so Graham can use his height to win.
The Seahawks love to use bootlegs, too, which allows Wilson to move the pocket and forces the defensive linemen and linebackers to keep track of both an extremely mobile quarterback, as well as their coverage responsibilities.
The Patriots have two very capable players that have been asked to cover tight ends this season. SS Patrick Chung is the traditional option, while FS Devin McCourty has covered the tight end when the running back is considered a receiving threat.
With LB Jamie Collins no longer on the roster, the Patriots don’t have a linebacker that would be asked to cover Graham, which means that the zone defense could be even more exposed than usual in the middle of the field.
The Patriots should focus their resources on stopping Graham, who currently ranks 2nd in receiving yards for all tight ends. The Seahawks offensive line is atrocious, so the Patriots should be able to defend the run without a heavy front and in the nickel defense. This would allow head coach Bill Belichick to disguise match-ups, while leaving both Chung and McCourty available to cover Chung.
Alternatively, the Patriots should dedicate their defensive front to getting to Wilson as quickly as possible so Graham never gets open down the field. Graham has had success this year against better secondaries than the Patriots’. This will be a key match-up to watch.