Seattle Seahawks

Rams’ pressure limits Graham’s effectiveness

Jimmy Graham caught five passes for 44 yards and a touchdown in his Seahawks debut Sunday. Constant pressure from the Rams defensive front forced QB Russell Wilson to target Graham on short passes.
Jimmy Graham caught five passes for 44 yards and a touchdown in his Seahawks debut Sunday. Constant pressure from the Rams defensive front forced QB Russell Wilson to target Graham on short passes. Associated Press

It’s great and all to now have Jimmy Graham. But the NFL’s most prolific pass-catching tight end the last four seasons won’t do the Seahawks much good if Russell Wilson doesn’t have time to wait for him to run his patterns down the field.

That’s what Seattle’s offense learned here Sunday while falling behind 24-13 in an eventual, 34-31 loss in overtime to the St. Louis Rams to begin the 2015 season.

Graham, the freakishly gifted, $40 million receiver the Seahawks acquired in March for two-time Pro Bowl center Max Unger and a first-round draft choice, had one catch for 7 yards in the first half. That was the only time Wilson threw his way; the quarterback was otherwise busy trying to escape blitzing Rams — or just ducking. He got sacked three times before halftime.

Seattle didn’t score an offensive touchdown until after a second-half adjustment. Wilson began throwing the ball more quickly against St. Louis’ incessant blitzing. And Graham ran shorter routes on which the quarterback didn’t have to wait as long. The result: Graham’s five catches on seven targets for 44 yards and his first Seahawks touchdown, 7 yards. That and Marshawn Lynch’s 2-point conversion run got the Seahawks to within 24-21 and started an 18-point rally into the lead in the fourth quarter.

As offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell had promised, Graham played all over formations: from the wing; tight on the line, often with fellow end Luke Willson; and out wide such as on his touchdown catch.

But his 8.5 yards per reception Sunday was 2 full yards lower than his career-low average over any of his first five NFL seasons with the Saints. His routes got so short in the second half, on third and 2 from the Rams 10 Graham ran a 1-yard pattern outside against yet another blitz. He caught Wilson’s quick pass, but St. Louis’ T.J. McDonald tackled him immediately a yard short of the line to gain. Seattle had to settle for Steven Hauschka’s field goal and a 13-10 lead instead of more, failing to fully capitalize on Jordan Hill’s fumble recovery of a botched shotgun snap by the Rams.

As Seattle lives with the expected growing pains of an offensive line with three starters in spots new to them as of three weeks ago — former college defensive tackle Drew Nowak is replacing Unger as the line’s blocking orchestrator — Graham running shorter routes may have to suffice for a while.

“We got knocked around a little bit on the pass rush and we didn’t get the chances,” coach Pete Carroll said of Graham going down the field. “We had him in the game plan throughout. And he did an excellent job I thought when he got his chance.”

Wilson blamed some of the six sacks he took on himself. He’s been sacked 18 times in four career games at St. Louis.

“I think a little bit of it is on me, just to see if I can find a way to get the ball out a little quicker and to just continue to work,” the QB said.

Nowak, right tackle and college tight end Garry Gilliam plus left guard Justin Britt, last year’s rookie right tackle, left tackle Russell Okung and right guard J.R. Sweezy often got overwhelmed by the sheer numbers of Rams rampaging free at them.

“They brought a few guys … but we have to play better. We have to protect better,” Okung said.

Nowak was a practice-squad guard last season who beat out Unger’s former backup, Lemuel Jeanpierre, last month. To help him in his first career start, Wilson was making most of the initial protection calls before snaps on Sunday.

Not all of them were the right ones.

“A couple of times we called the protection wrong,” offensive line coach Tom Cable said, in general and not singling out Wilson.

All in all, Cable said, it was “kind of what I expected.”

If the Seahawks want to utilize Graham again next Sunday night at Green Bay and for the foreseeable future, expect more of his routes to be short. And as quick as possible.