This is a look at one Saint that's confirmed out for this Saturday's Wild Card game, how he impacted the last matchup between the Saints and Seahawks, and how his absence might impact tomorrow's game.
Defending tight ends is one of the few ways the Seahawks defense was adequate this season. The two best tight ends in football, Antonio Gates and Vernon Davis, had decent showings, but Seattle was able to limit some mid-tier talents like Tony Moeaki, Zach Miller and Tony Gonzalez. Gonzo is arguably the greatest tight end ever, but age finds everyone, and by his standards, 2010 was a down season.
Graham was a notable exception among the mid-tier tight ends. He was able to convert eight targets into five receptions for 72 yards. Nine yards a target is nothing to sniff at.
Graham's first two targets were incomplete passes. One was a cross and go pattern that started from right tight end and finished up the left sideline. The other was an out from slot. Both are traditional uses for a tight end, and Seattle was able to match defensive backs against Graham on both snaps: Earl Thomas and Roy Lewis, respectively. From there, Graham's usage started to vary.
He converted a first with a tight end screen. David Hawthorne was able to spin through a lead blocker and stop the play after eight, but if not for his effort, the play was on its way to a big gain. Seattle wasn't prepared for the screen and three offensive lineman had pulled and passed the first down marker in front of Graham. That's a recipe for disaster. Graham has 4.56 speed. That speed builds. The last thing a defense wants is a long strider with space and blockers.
On the next play, Graham ran a deep corner, but Walter Thurmond shadowed the route and jumped it, almost intercepting Brees's pass. That would be the last incomplete pass targeting Graham.
He ran a corner past Hawthorne for 19. Graham then worked Thurmond for nine and the first on second and nine. Graham was aligned wide right, and was able to shield Thurmond out of the play. It's a size mismatch and made for an easy conversion.
Graham's next big reception was against Jordan Babineaux. Graham outran Seattle's defensive back on a post pattern. That's bad news when a tight end can outrun your nickelback.
That reception converted second and 13. A Hawthorne interception was able to stop the Saints from pulling out to a 21 or even 24 point lead, but that big play didn't come until the red zone. Up until, the Saints were driving. The Saints were in complete control.
His final reception started as a block and broke into an out. It went for nine and converted another first down. Not only did Graham amass 72 yards receiving, but all five receptions went for first downs.
Graham's breakout game came with Jeremy Shockey missing time with a rib injury. Shockey and Graham are fairly comparable, with Graham younger and quicker, and Shockey an inveterate villain. He's someone you cheer to fail whatever your team affiliations. So there's an irrational bonus of replacing Graham with Shockey.
Otherwise, the Seahawks need to approach Shockey as they would have approached Graham. He can get deep. He can line up in the slot. He's versatile and athletic, and if you don't account for him, he'll quietly tear your defense to pieces.
But if I had to pick between the two, I definitely rather Shockey take the field this Saturday. He no longer possesses the same kind of athleticism and explosiveness he did in his youth, and I have always had the sense that Shockey is one of those players that hurts a team with what he does when he's not being targeted. Watch for Shockey's impact on hot routes and when run blocking. It might be the little stuff that truly separates the two, but little stuff isn't little when it leads to sacks, stuffs and interceptions.