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Enter the Saints: Split Jimmy Graham wide again

A prescription for getting the Seahawks running game on track, and a spooky prediction

New Orleans Saints v Carolina Panthers

“It sleeps after the night of howling, speaking-in-tongues, dancing to drums…”

So this is the Jimmy Graham revenge game. Let’s hope it goes better than Bradley Sowell’s revenge, but, whatever else you think about the net return or any sliding doors scenario involved with the trade acquiring Graham, he doesn’t have to do anything special Sunday to prove he has been a provident player for the Seattle Seahawks and not any kind of poor fit in the offense.

After six games in 2016, Graham is on pace to catch 72 balls for 1,088 yards, which would be at least second or third among tight ends, by yards, in every season in NFL history except 2007. In 2013 it would have been more than 150 yards better than any tight end except the New Orleans Saints version of himself (1,215 yards). In 2012, 2010 and 2008 it would have led the league, as well as in 2006 and every season before 2004.

Graham is second on the Seahawks in receptions, and leads the team in yards per catch. Graham may never approach his absolute totals from 2011 and 2013—but it probably has more to do with the fact his team is so much more frequently in the lead than any mumbo jumbo about “New Orleans’s tightly-structured system”. Anyway he’s also been a way better player per target in Seattle (8.8 y/a in 17 games now compared to 7.9 on average from 2011-2014 and never higher than 8.5 at his peak season in New Orleans) at almost 90 percent the usage rate so the total difference is actually marginal.

Would I rather have 60 percent of that, plus a Pro Bowl left tackle? Maybe, assuming some combination of Jermaine Kearse and Paul Richardson or Nick Vannett or whoever could handle the balance of those targets, but Graham also seems to make Russell Wilson happy so who cares?

The one thing I do wish I’d see, however, that the Saints did with Graham, is more plays where he lines up wide of the formation. According to Andy Benoit in that Sports Illustrated piece linked above, Graham has only three catches from a split alignment in 2016. That gives an idea how rarely they’re sending him out there, but I don’t even need to see him catching balls: I think it can be an antidote to the Seahawks recent difficulty in the run game.

For example, Matty F. Brown at Inside the Pylon this summer broke down how Seattle used double stacks formations to its advantage last year after losing Graham as well as Marshawn Lynch and Thomas Rawls to injury late in the year. Double stacks aren’t just Wilson’s and Tanner McEvoy’s favorite one-dollar burgers from State Street Brats in Madison, Wisc. Double stacks in the football sense that Brown describes are the formation with two pairs of receivers lined up virtually one in front of the other at the edges of the field, with a halfback next to the quarterback in shotgun.

As Brown points out, this alignment guarantees a running back won’t face more than seven defenders in the box, or else give up a numbers advantage on easy throws to the outside. Against the Arizona Cardinals in week 17 last year it sprang Christine Michael, Sr., for a 45-yard gain.

Notice on the second look in that clip when the replay pauses as Michael, Sr., breaks to the second level—there’s no one on the screen in front of him because the safety had to crash the box to account for a possible Russell Wilson keeper.

Now imagine Seattle motions Jimmy Graham split out in one of the stacks. Against a defense in nickel (the situation was 2nd and 19—not altogether an uncommon setting given the Seahawks’ offensive line), that would force sending one of the linebackers out wide to avoid placing a cornerback on the 6-foot-7 Graham, and instead leave the nickel corner to try to fill a possible run fit on the interior. From these mismatches within mismatches, you can build varieties of run-pass options even without the threat of Wilson himself running.

The only reason I can understand Seattle didn’t try this last week against the Cardinals was Chandler Jones and Markus Golden bring too much speed off the edges to leave the tackles exposed like that (Golden missed week 17 with a knee injury last year; Jones was on the Patriots). Or maybe they just didn’t get to it: Pete Carroll said Monday the Seahawks didn’t get through all their scripted 15 plays because they achieved so few first downs in the first half [black cloud emoji].

No matter, there won’t be any such issue in New Orleans Sunday. The Saints haven’t got much at all from their edge rushers, with Cameron Jordan leading the way with just 2.5 sacks on the season. That’s the equivalent of one Sunday Night Football game for Cliff Avril. Nick Fairley has done better from the down tackle position, but together those two have two-thirds of New Orleans’s paltry nine sacks total. Of course you don’t necessarily need special gizmos to run on the Saints either, who are 28th in rush defense DVOA.

As far as I can tell, New Orleans has faced double stacks on only two snaps this season. The Kansas City Chiefs ran out of it with both their tight ends, Travis Kelce and Demetrius Harris, split wide on second and six last week:

It was a halfway successful play, and Spencer Ware had a wide crease but Craig Robertson made a big fill to hog-tackle him down after four yards. The New York Giants got more out of it, with a 40-yard catch and run by Victor Cruz:

Cruz happens to fumble at the end, but the formation works as designed when Eli Manning motions Cruz into the stack behind the big tight end Will Tye, flummoxing safety Kenny Vaccaro who wants to read wide receiver screen so bad he ends up blocking Cruz’s original man Ken Crawley out of the play and giving up the big gain on the little arrow. Moreover, you can see from the end zone view how the motion confuses the box defenders too, creating the sort of numbers advantage a zone team can pry right open should the offense opt to hand off.

Likewise, teams have been manipulating the Saints defense with other forms of shotgun spread all season. The Chargers live in those alignments and opened up a 34-21 lead before a travesty of errors blew the game. Carolina got back into its game against New Orleans (eventually tying it up at 38-38 after falling behind 24-0) by running mostly spreads and bunch formations. Doing so, Cam Newton routinely found Greg Olsen or Kelvin Benjamin at the sticks. The Panthers didn’t gain a lot of running yards in those looks but used the run to open these seams in the nickel defense. They didn’t line Olsen in double stacks but often sent four wide with three receivers to one side or Olsen in the slot slightly spread out from the tackle his side, or otherwise split out by himself to draw a safety farther from the box.

Naturally there’s a difference between what I might expect the Seahawks to do and what they really will game plan. Seattle has been reliably successful since Carroll and Wilson joined forces, but you would rarely say they perform as expected—last week in Arizona being only the latest, baldest example.

Maybe there are deeper forces at work. New Orleans is a city of clandestine magic, voodoo and fortunetelling, and there so happens to be an outfit called Game Augur that deigns to read the outcomes of football games in Tarot cards and posts them on Instagram. Game Augur is only 3-3 picking Seahawks games this year against the spread (3-2-1 straight up), but there is one reading of which there is no doubt Game Augur was spot on.

The fortuneteller identified the Seattle Seahawks as a Gemini:

Now, I don’t truck too far with astrology as predictive predestination, but I know some Geminis and Geminis tend to have a personality profile. Gemini is the twin sign, Castor and Pollux, and Geminis tend to have two minds within one—the way Marshawn Lynch has two bodies within one, because he absorbed his twin while inside his mother’s uterus. As soon as you think a Gemini is one person, they will reveal themselves to be another. (This is not a slight against Geminis. Some of my favorite rappers are Geminis.) Geminis have alter egos. They’re full of surprises. If any football team were a Gemini, these irreconcilable Seahawks would be.

But the fortuneteller, as they do, also gave a pronouncement that came with this revelation. It sounds like a warning. It sounds like a jazz blacksmith. Though it was given more than a month ago, in another season, it sounds like Halloween:

“A man wearing a mask stands in the middle of a dark forest with a dead horse at his feet while two foxes devour chickens.”