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The Most Unstoppable Play in Football Is Jimmy Graham Isolated in the Red Zone

After two years, the Seahawks finally remembered they have a touchdown machine for a tight end

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

It took them two years, but the Seahawks are finally using Jimmy Graham in the role he was born to play: the unguardable goal-line mismatch. The 6-foot-7, 260-pound tight end has caught an incredible nine touchdowns in his past eight games, more than he had in his first 31 games as a Seahawk combined. It’s been a long, arduous, and circuitous route back to the top of the NFL’s touchdown leaderboard for the four-time Pro Bowler—and his recent success been made possible by the fact the Seahawks seemed to realize that isolating Graham on the wing is the most unstoppable play in football.

At the time, Seattle’s decision to trade a first-round pick and center Max Unger to the Saints for Graham and a fourth-rounder back in March 2015 made all the sense in the world. This was, of course, the team that had lost the Super Bowl three months earlier on a horribly botched goal-line pass intended for deep threat Ricardo Lockette. Seattle probably should’ve handed the ball off to Marshawn Lynch in that situation, sure, but the decision to throw would’ve been a hell of a lot more defensible if Russell Wilson had had a proven red zone target in his arsenal. That’s where, in theory, Graham would come in. When the Seahawks made that trade, he was the league’s premier touchdown scorer and red zone monster. He’d led the league in targets inside the 5-yard line over the previous four seasons combined (30), and was tied with the Cowboys Dez Bryant for the league lead in touchdowns (17) in that area of the field.

But plenty of Seahawks fans reacted to the trade with apprehension. The decision to give up on Percy Harvin, who Seattle traded a first-round pick and change for in 2013, and ship him to the Jets for relative peanuts in October 2014 was still fresh in many minds; Seattle had wasted that first-round pick in their attempt to make Harvin a featured playmaker in their offense. That never materialized—Harvin was never a precise route-runner, nor a particularly effective deep-ball catcher—and offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell’s efforts to find a useful role for the explosive playmaker in Seattle’s low-volume passing game failed. Harvin ended up as a glorified gadget player for the most part, utilized on screens, sweeps, and a handful of runs out of the backfield, finishing with just 23 catches and one rushing touchdown in just six games with the team.

That debacle tempered expectations for whether Pete Carroll and Bevell could properly utilize Graham in the Seahawks’ scheme, which was, to put it mildly, nothing like the Saints’. Where New Orleans spread things out, passed a ton, and used Graham like a de facto wide receiver, Seattle lined up in heavy sets, asked their tight ends to block, and passed the ball far less frequently. The questions over Graham’s fit proved to be warranted: Seattle tried to make him a more traditional in-line blocking tight end and rarely utilized him where he’s most dangerous, deep in the red zone. Bevell wasn’t overly eager to dial up throws from near-goal-line situations following the Super Bowl disaster, of course, so it’s somewhat understandable that the team attempted just five passes inside opponents’ 5-yard line in the 11 games Jimmy Graham played in 2015. Graham saw a grand total of one target in that area (it fell incomplete) before a patellar tendon tear ended his season, and he finished his first year as a Seahawk with 48 catches for 605 yards and two scores. At that point, his career appeared to be in serious jeopardy (historically those injuries had been difficult to return from) and Seattle was in danger of seeing very little return on the trade.

Graham returned to action in 2016, though, and his utility in the team’s offense evolved. He became a more reliable threat over the middle of the field for Wilson, catching 65 passes for 923 yards and six touchdowns and earning a Pro Bowl nod. But he still was far from reaching his full potential as a touchdown scorer—the major reason the team must have traded for him in the first place. Seattle threw 17 passes inside the 5-yard line last year, and Graham saw just two such targets, catching one touchdown. It wasn’t that Graham was double-teamed or bracketed on every play, either. The Seahawks weren’t using him as an isolation-play option near the end zone: On the 37 total snaps the team ran inside the 5-yard line, Graham lined up away from the formation on just three plays. All told, in Graham’s first 27 games with the team, the Seahawks ran 54 plays inside opponents’ 5-yard line and threw it to Graham just three times.

This year, everything’s changed. Graham’s usage has evolved away from the middle of the field and toward the area where he’s best: the red zone. The tight end hasn’t been a major factor in between the 20s, on pace for his fewest yards per game (39.4) since his rookie year while averaging a career-low 9.1 yards per reception. But a light’s apparently gone on for Bevell and/or Wilson, who both appear to have finally realized that they’ve got one of the most dominant goal-line threats in NFL history on their team—and Graham’s explosion in red zone success has more than made up for his drop in production everywhere else on the field. Seattle’s run 30 plays from inside the 5-yard line this year (17 passes and 13 runs), and to the exasperated relief of an entire city and fan base, Graham’s been the target on a league-high 12 of the throws. That’s four times as many targets inside the 5-yard line as he saw his first two years with the team combined, a number that only one player has matched over a full season this century (Demaryius Thomas had 13 in 2014)—and there are four games left. Graham has turned that uptick in looks into six touchdowns, and easily the most effective play they team has used is when they simply isolate him one-on-one on the outside and throw the ball up for him.

Against the Rams in Week 5, the Seahawks broke the huddle in a two-receiver, two-tight-end personnel group, overloading the right side of the field with Tyler Lockett, Paul Richardson, and Nick Vannett. The Rams countered with a similar defensive overload to that side of the field, which left Graham out on the wing, all alone and matched up against rookie safety John Johnson III. It was exactly the type of mismatch the team had failed to exploit in Graham’s first two seasons with the club, and it was an easy pitch-and-catch for Wilson and the big former basketball star.

It’s become a running joke at this point, but there is a good reason that TV announcers mention that Graham is a former basketball player on every single telecast. On plays like this, Wilson’s throw becomes, in effect, similar to a basketball entry pass into the post. Graham simply keeps the defender on his hip like he’s posting up with his back to the basket and fends him off with an arm, while Wilson lobs it to where only Graham can get it.

Seattle did the same thing the next week against the Giants. They did it three times, in fact. On the first, Wilson overthrew Graham, and on the second, Graham dropped a perfect pass that would’ve been a touchdown. They connected the third time, though: Coming out of the huddle in a three-receiver, one-tight-end set, Seattle again overloaded its formation to the left, forcing the Giants to spread themselves thin (they have to defend the middle of the field against a run, too, after all). That left Graham in a one-on-one on the outside against sophomore cornerback Eli Apple. He won that matchup easily.

The Seahawks went back to that well in Week 10 against the Cardinals. Lining up in the same formation as the one we saw above against the Rams, Graham got his one-on-one, ran a little box-out route into the end zone, and went up high over veteran safety Antoine Bethea to reel in the pass. Bethea’s attempt to out-muscle Graham at the catch point was futile; Graham has 8 inches on Bethea, and his size ended up winning out.

Seattle did it again the next week. Same personnel group. Same formation. Same play. Same result.

While that play has been basically unguardable, it’s always good to vary things a little bit. Against the Niners, Seattle again overloaded one side of the field to give Graham a one-on-one matchup on the outside. This time, though, the Seahawks broke from their tendency to throw the back-shoulder fade and ran Graham on a slant instead.

In all, Seattle has run a variation of that isolation play nine times this year. Five went for touchdowns, three fell incomplete because of off-target passes by Wilson, and one was a drop. In other words, with a good throw, it’s been virtually unstoppable. Of course, none of Graham’s success this year should be a real surprise—he was a master in the same types of looks for the Saints for years—which raises the question …

There are a few potential reasons for why it took the Seahawks so long to catch onto the obvious way to utilize Graham. Occam’s razor would say that it was simply bad scheming by Bevell and the Seahawks, and there’s little question the team appeared to forget they had a mismatch-maker like Graham on its roster. But there are a few other factors for why Graham’s touchdown-breakout took so long: These types of throws require a good deal of chemistry between quarterback and receiver. They’re timing- and accuracy-based passes, and early on in Graham’s tenure in Seattle, we saw Wilson overthrow or mistime them. It just took a while for Wilson and Graham to refine their connection, turning a bang-bang play into something that looks easy. The team also spoke frequently last year about managing Graham to avoid aggravating the injury, so while he was on the field, his slow, steady recovery from patellar tendon surgery may have limited what the Seahawks wanted him to do.

Graham is the team's goal-line trump card now, and that will be important down the stretch. Seattle’s run game has been a nightmare, and without a real goal-line back on the roster (the team’s running backs have scored just one rushing touchdown all season), Graham has stepped in to become the team’s primary goal-line option. The Graham we saw in New Orleans—at least in his role as a touchdown-scoring dominator—is back. At 31 years old, he may never again be the seam-running, explosive big-play threat that he used to be, but it’s evident that late-career Jimmy Graham is a little like Liam Neeson's character in Taken: He has a very particular set of skills that he acquired over a long career, and they make him a nightmare for defensive backs in one-on-one coverage in the end zone.