clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Using Jimmy Graham & the Seahawks Passing Game

A 1st round pick and Max Unger. Too much to pay for a blocking Tight End?

Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

Excitement has quickly turned to confusion and anxiety since Seattle's started the season. Jimmy Graham's usage and production thus far have not met the naturally high expectations.

Seattle's passing game has seemed rudimentary compared to the more prolific offenses in the league, and with Pete Carroll and Russell Wilson insisting over and over that they're trying to get Graham the ball, the question's been raised multiple times, are they able to scheme him open? Are they willing to scheme him open?

Let's take a look at a selection of passing plays versus Green Bay.

1-10-SEA 10 Q1 10:41

Designed screen to Tyler Lockett. Graham is kept in to block.

This first play for Seattle was a pass, which seems unusual. In fact, Seattle opened 6 of their 9 drives with a pass. Maybe anticipating Green Bay to expect and focus on the run. Also maybe recognizing they would need to establish some passing game to keep up with Aaron Rodgers.

30 pass attempts, 25 runs for Wilson & Lynch combined. The need to pass eroded further rushing attempts late in the game, but they still called a few runs even in Q4 down a score. Fairly evenly called. A nice example of a game where running more would not have helped secure the win, but securing the win would have resulted in running more.

2-8-SEA 15 Q1 6:08

Chris Matthews motions in, crouches as though he's going to block. Seattle's broadcasting run, here. But then Matthews & Graham release to sweep out the defenders. Wilson passes to Derrick Coleman. It's not a screen, as the linemen didn't feign pass protection and then leak out. Two defenders read the play and close on Coleman for a short gain.

This play is designed to get the FB open. Which is another way of saying, schemed open. So, the opposite of scheming Graham open. It's early, and Seattle's looking to establish the passing game with some success, testing the waters to see how the protection will hold up. As we shall see, it held up decently well.

See how Chris Matthews' route is dug inward first before driving downfield? The intent is to get Hayward to flip his hips and therefore be facing inward in hopes that recognizing the FB dumpoff and flipping back to stop it will be delayed that much further.

Green Bay makes a deliberate show with their safeties, pre-snap. First Ha Ha Clinton-Dix comes up into the box, then before the snap, he retreats and Morgan Burnett comes up, directly over Graham. Green Bay  may have been looking to capitalize on some force-feeding to Graham: Burnett initiates a backpedal as though he's going to cover Graham, but reads the backfield and ultimately covers Coleman. Clay Matthews retreats hard from the weak-side Mike ILB position to cover Graham. All that scheming, but the joke's on them: FB dumpoff.

3-8-SEA 15 Q1 5:24

Graham sets 2 yards behind the line, then chips & releases into a short route. Pass protection is good, so Wilson looks deep, hits Doug Baldwin for 32 yards. Baldwin breaks open before Graham does. This is a good result. Graham's release wasn't super good. I think DT Josh Boyd slowed Graham up more than Graham slowed Boyd.

1-10 SEA 47 Q1 5:01

Safety Sean Richardson follows Graham across the box in man coverage here and is late picking him up. Wilson reads this, so Graham is the target.

Graham runs crisp routes. He hits all the landmarks. Reach the numbers, cut upfield. Break to the outside after 5 more yards. The play was designed to get him open. Chris Matthews' route comes back to the inside to interfere with the safety.

This was a good anticipation throw by Wilson. Graham's steady stride didn't change as the ball came in, and Richardson was in good position to break it up. It kinda felt like Graham maybe could have gained a step on Richardson if he'd really tried, but maybe that would have disrupted the timing.

3-3-GB 36 Q1 3:21

Another presnap read by Wilson: Clay Matthews is late getting in position to cover Luke Willson.

Willson drives off the line faster than the other receivers and breaks earlier, too.

Unfortunately, he slipped, and the pass was already out of Russell's hands. At the top of this 3rd image here you can see Graham involved in a rub route that would have been open had Russell needed to make further progressions.

1-10-GB 48 Q2 15:00

Classic bootleg play-action. Luke Willson runs a wheeling crosser for 12 yards and the first. He rounds outward to sell the outside zone run block before rounding in for the cross. As a quarter-opener, this almost qualifies as a 7th drive-opening pass. The Packers stuck 8 in the box, Clinton-Dix played the run first, bit hard on play-action, and never could catch up to Willson, so the classic bootleg is still a viable play in the NFL.

Russell throws it behind Luke a bit to get the throw around a closing Julius Peppers with his hands up, forcing Luke to break his stride and slide to the ground. He had enough open field and only two defenders in position to stop him, it could have been a huge play if not saved for Green Bay by Peppers.

While Willson got the clean release, Graham blocked well, then released, straight into the flat. The reason why is just the classic bootleg is designed this way. Graham & Willson could have been swapped. I'm not sure you want to myopically focus on Graham with guys like Willson around. Luke's nearly as big and has better speed. But worse hands. Thankfully he caught this one.

But 0-yard flat routes ain't exactly the visions of sugarplums we had when we heard the news that Jimmy was coming to town.

Seattle will run this same play again in the 3rd quarter, then follow it with the same personnel and formation, but flipped. But rather than run it a 3rd time, Luke releases to block for Wilson on a designed keeper.

3-16-GB 42 Q2 12:40

Incomplete deep to Jermaine Kearse. No scheming open here, just 4 verticals, but Graham's presence does occupy the safety enough to make this a viable throw.

Wilson mechanically looks the safety off by looking in Graham's direction and makes the throw. Not underthrown, but might have helped Kearse if it was just a hair more to the outside. Kearse leaps up just a hair early, though, which ultimately undoes the play, but he still makes a good pass breakup to prevent an interception. Just perfect man coverage by Damarious Randall. Packers went with Cover 1 Robber and 5-man underneath.

2-27-SEA 46 Q2 7:18

Immediately prior to this play, Lynch loses 2 yards and JR Sweezy gets a 15-yard penalty. 27 yards! Seattle was at the GB 37, now they're back past midfield. The opportunity cost of all these penalties have not been trivial. 27 yards! Think Dom Capers plays this one soft?

Nope. Not soft. But they play zone, which was nice and cooperative because Seattle runs a zone flood. Baldwin breaks open easily and Wilson finds him easily. Nice quick throw, but 6 yards needing 27 isn't really what you want. Graham's at the top of the zone flood so he attracts the safety; there likely was no sense throwing to him or Kearse who also went vertical. You can't just dial up a deep shot; they usually occur because of a mistake.

3-21-GB 48 Q2 6:52

Next play. 3 deep routes, Graham chips & releases into the left flat. Packer coverage is tight. So Wilson scrambles for 3 and they punt.

What's with these puny routes for Graham? Someone must resent him, yes? Or maybe he needs to pay his dues. I haven't detailed them all, but Graham was kept in to block again, and now ran 2 routes into the flat.

I think what's actually happening is that "scheming" a player open is a little counter-intuitive to what you might expect. The deeper routes honestly don't have much of a chance. For even average pass defenses, you don't get good deep opportunities downfield frequently. Like I said, you can't just dial them up, they usually occur because of a mistake.

Mostly, scheming open works the other way around: The deep routes are supposed to sweep back all the defenders and occupy the safeties so someone can make the catch and have some chance at doing some damage underneath. Especially against a defense with man cover tendencies like Green Bay.

That's what I see them doing with Graham. It's not edgy or creative, but it's scheming to open things up for a specific player. And yet, still no catches.

1-10-SEA 35 Q2 2:21

Another zone flood-like concept, although I don't think 3 receivers constitutes a flood. Graham drives deep, Baldwin crosses over and Lynch releases out of the backfield. Sticky coverage again, and Wilson wisely takes Lynch early to beat a free-rushing Peppers who was late off the snap, before he can jump into the throwing lane. Unfortunately Lynch drops this one.

This was followed by a run with 2:17 left in the half. As pseudo-2-minute drills go, it's not a bad time to call a run. It tells the defense you're still willing to run, and the clock cost is mitigated by the 2-minute warning. Seattle had 2 timeouts, Green Bay none. Lynch picks up 7, a nice run. Trouble is, to really kick off their 2-minute drill, they need a 1st down, now. It's 3rd & 3.

So they run again. Might not seem they're serious about running a 2-minute drill, but they get a good look. It's a 6-man box, with Seattle in trips left with Graham in isolation on the right. No 2-minute drill for us. Bummer. But this is a nice lesson about 3rd & 3.

3 is a small number so we often think of it as short-yardage. It's not exactly short. For one thing, "3 yards" can be up to 3.999 yards to go in reality. Which is up to 12 feet. That's double the length of pretty much every football player. This play happened to be exactly 3 yards to go. So 9 feet. It's still not a distance covered by just punching it in. You need good push and you need to hit a good hole.

These charts (courtesy of Steve Buzzard, show dramatically how 3rd & 3 is not a running down in the NFL. Teams pass close to 80% of the time they're faced with 3 yards to go on any down, and the curve is steeper for 3rd down.

There's barely any difference between how often teams pass with 3 yards to go or 20, but a big difference between how often teams pass with 2 yards to go compared to 3. It's just not as close as it seems.

So Green Bay got to have a 2-minute drill instead and picked up 3 points. And we could surely determine whether Darrell Bevell's decision to run it here originated in his id, his ego or his superego, if we tried, but I'm not sure we have the time.

That's half the game. Tally thus far:

  • 2 pass plays Graham is kept in to block.
  • 5 pass plays Graham gets to go deep. 1 target here, which is about what we should expect for deep opportunities.
  • 3 pass plays Graham is schemed open. No targets.
  • 3 pass plays Graham is arguably neglected or misused, two flats & a 3-yard drag route. Paired with deeper routes, this is also arguably schemed open, as a possession receiver, with the pointed effort to constrain the defense against the run and coax the coverage a little closer. But the yards to go for these 3 plays were 10, 16 & 21. Give-up calls? There aren't plays sure to work with 16 & 21 yards to go, as they say. This is the NFL, son.
1-10-SEA 20 Q3 15:00

Beginning of Q3. Everyone sent deep but Graham. Even Lynch. Possession drive-opener. "Schemed open." 3-yard dig route.

Does it feel ridiculous? That Willson is the TE who gets all the deep routes?

Few things. First, Graham's had 5 routes past 12 yards, more than the 0-to-3 yard routes or 4-to-12 yard routes. This is Luke Willson's 3rd route run, and the first one deep. And he picks up 24 yards, should we complain?

Next, Willson actually has better speed and release off the line, so using him as a deep threat doesn't defy logic. Third, in New Orleans, each year, about two-thirds of Graham's pass targets were thrown within 10 yards. Seattle's explicit plans for Graham have been as a red zone threat, and so surprisingly, Seattle's use of Graham so far hasn't really strayed from how the Saints used him, and if anything they may be sending him past 12 yards with higher frequency.

He typically enjoyed about 30 receptions between 10 and 40 yards, per year, so we hope to see a bit more of that. Not 30 receptions, likely, but 30 targets at least.

Meanwhile, Willson is more athletic. He releases off the line faster, consistently:

He's 2-inches shorter and his hands aren't as good, so he probably won't reach Graham's caliber, but when you get 24 yards and an incredible grab like Luke pulled off on this play, it's not the right time to be questioning whether Graham is being used properly. Jimmy's not the only viable weapon.

1-10-SEA 44 Q3 14:21

Packers rush with 6 men. Both Willson and Graham are kept in to block. They double Peppers and do a good job. Russell can't get around the corner and loses a yard running out of bounds.

2-11-SEA 43 Q3 13:48

Green Bay aggressively shows blitz, sends 5. Graham is kept in to block for the second consecutive play. The sack on the last play and Capers turning up the heat convince Seattle to use Graham this way. Keeping track, that's 3 times Graham was kept in to block in the 1st half, and now twice in the 2nd half. Incomplete to Kearse.

3-11 SEA 43 Q3 13:45

Love this play design here.

It looks like a rub route. It looks like a rub route disguised as a zone flood. It's actually designed to get Lockett open in the slot. And it worked.

Fred Jackson motions out of the backfield to set 2 yards off the line. Clay Matthews follows him over, but then doubles with Damarious Randall to combo-chuck Doug Baldwin at the line.

Green Bay recognizes the rub and they're determined to disrupt it. This explains the Packers' weird coverage here. They go cover 1 robber man under again, but Casey Hayward plays way off to stay clear of getting picked off. He keeps his eyes on Wilson and to the outside of Lockett, anticipating Graham coming through underneath.

Matthews covers Jackson, but leaks backward, watching Wilson, ready to jump Graham's route after the expected pick attempt off trailing Sam Shields. Morgan Burnett creeps up and keys straight in on Graham, staying on top of him. So Graham's drawn in 3 defenders like strong nuclear force draws in 3 hydrogen atoms around a carbon to make methane.

Hayward's unable to recover as Lockett makes his break. Wilson plays Clinton-Dix off perfectly, keeping his eyes on Baldwin as if avoiding a glance at Graham. Hence Ha Ha continues his retreat to deep middle even while Lockett breaks wide open. I dunno how many more teams this one will fool, but it's something to watch for.

1-10-GB 10 Q3 11:32

12 personnel, TEs tight. Graham drives up the seam into the end zone. Targetable, but it's a tight fit. Protect the ball. Dumpoff to Lynch. They try to go to Graham again in the end zone, next play, but incomplete, so Fred Jackson gets the next dumpoff for the score. But sending Graham into the end zone was a constant trend inside the red zone. No missed snaps, no drag routes or schemed open underneath stuff.

1-10-SEA 46 Q3 8:33

His one catch. 11 yard pickup on an out route to Graham. No scheming, just open.

1-10-GB 26 Q3 7:38

Both TEs split and go up the seams, which was what I'd been looking for all season. Willson & Graham tearing up both seams was one of the most exciting concepts to me, especially against a single-high safety. I'm still hopeful for this concept throughout the season, but this wasn't what I was hoping for.

I'll get to this play in a moment, see below.

* * * * *

Unfortunately the third and final Q3 drive ended up fizzling badly. Seattle took their last meaningful drive with 9:28 left in Q4, down one score, and looked to grind the game out on the ground. Not a bad strategy, but the intercepted screen pass to Lynch ended it.

Ah well. Seattle still scored 2 TDs in Q3, a quarter traditionally not kind to Wilson. As Russ takes over, and takes the lead, short-lived though it was, Seattle stopped much scheming-open. Most routes were individual man-beaters. Verts, deep digs, curls & comebacks. This was the primary halftime adjustment for Seattle.

Graham goes on to get seven more 12-yard routes, two 5-yard curls, and five more 3-yard crossers. This doesn't count the final five routes he gets over the last two Seattle drives, after GB went up a score and then intercepted Wilson. So of course those were all 12-yard routes. So seventeen 12-yard routes. He served as the pick on two rub routes, and also ran a nice in-breaking route from a wideout split to shield Lynch in the slot from man coverage.

But tallying route types doesn't tell us much. Why only 1 catch for 11 yards?

I thought Russell played well. Green Bay didn't scheme to take Graham away. He was kept in to block one more time, and it was his best blocking job on the edge yet I might mention (but toward the end of Q3 down a score, so a questionable assignment). So 5 times he was kept in to block, and Luke Willson only once.

So I don't think it was the QB, the coaches, the game plan, the defense, or the blocking. I do think it was a little bad luck, the way the plays unfolded, when Graham was open on a good route, Wilson found something else sooner, or better.

But more so, I think it shows up in that last play above.

Brian Baldinger featured it as an example of Wilson choosing double-covered Willson over single-covered Graham, implicating the problem is Russell preferring Luke. I don't agree with his eval, here. You can watch it in the link.  This still here is the moment Russell begins to cock back to throw. Clinton-Dix has already begun breaking on this one. Russell didn't do anything to look him off, and that's the biggest reason this wasn't score (though they would score two plays later).

That's why Luke gets the safety, because he's being thrown to. Russell makes this read on account of Graham's route due to break to the outside at the 15-yard line where the defender is.

This strikes to the heart of the dearth of Graham targets, for me. He's a large target with great hands, but Luke Willson gets downfield quicker. That's why he gets the bootleg crosser and Graham gets the flat. Russell loves attacking deep when he can, and this game provided the uncommon combination of time to throw against good pass coverage. I don't know if Luke Willson will have a breakout season, but he's reached a new level of play this year.

On that field, on that day, Graham wasn't as good an option against that defense as Baldwin and Willson were. I think Seattle's use for Graham was fine considering the receivers he supplements. He's a dependable large target, not a deep threat. They gave him plenty of chances to drive down the field, but Russell mostly had other places to throw to first.

I don't know if that's a trend, but I don't think there's dischord between coach, OC, QB and Graham. I don't think Seattle doesn't know how to use him, or that Wilson is uncomfortable throwing to him. I think Luke Willson earned the deeper cross on the bootlegs in prior showings, and Graham the flat, and it wouldn't work as well for either if it were flipped.

Likely you'll have mixed feelings about such an assessment. Maybe a little troubling. We needn't end on such a dour note, though. There's much to be pleased with here. Pass protection was good. Half-time adjustments were effective and deliberate. Graham is central to Seattle's game plan and passing game. They send him deep more than New Orleans did, actually. His red zone assignments are all end zone. They scheme him open underneath and shrewdly use him to get others open. They anticipate and exploit opponent play recognition. Luke Willson is a dynamic factor. They didn't keep Graham in to block but for a half-dozen out of thirty pass plays.

And best of all: they didn't keep him in to block BECAUSE THEY DIDN'T NEED TO! Now I can't say for sure that trend will continue, even against the Bears who enjoyed some fine pressure vs Green Bay from Jared Allen. But it really is the best news to come out of all this. Even for an article on Graham and the passing schematics.