The Seahawks made a huge splash this offseason when they acquired tight end Jimmy Graham from the Saints. Graham will undoubtedly improve the Seahawks’ passing game, especially when it comes to 3rd down and red zone situations. The question that has continually been asked, though, is how will Graham fare in a run-first offense considering he isn’t the best of run blockers?
The first thing to remember is that the Seahawks’ running game is not based on the tight end paving the way. In fact, much of it is based on the read-option, which is a type of run that, by design, leaves some defenders unblocked. Because Russell Wilson is such a threat with his legs, he normally occupies at least one defender on every running play. By and large, if the unblocked edge defender crashes down too hard inside, Wilson can keep the ball and make big plays off the edge. If the defender stays with Wilson, that’s one less man to help out against Marshawn Lynch.
Whether it’s through the read-option or their other running plays, what the Seahawks often do with their rushing attack doesn’t necessarily involve the tight end. Take the below formation, for instance. There isn’t a tight end on the field.
The Seahawks run out of this formation often. This play happened to be a read-option where Wilson kept the ball for a 12-yard gain. You can see the unblocked defender we mentioned earlier right in front of Wilson.
Below is another great example of what the Seahawks like to do in the running game. Here they had a 3×1 set with 4 wide receivers and 1 running back on the field. Again, there was no tight end.
The inside number-3 receiver ran a bubble route on this play, taking his defender with him.
Because of the bubble as well as the alignment which spread out the defense, the Seahawks were able to run the ball here against a 6-man front.
This is where Darrell Bevell deserves credit for the success of Seattle’s running game. He has done a great job of spreading out the defense and finding ways to occupy defenders without blocking them. Below is another example.
This was another 4 wide receiver, 1 running back formation (no tight end). The plus splits of both receiver stacks helped to spread out the defense, giving Wilson and Lynch more space to run inside. The formation here led to a 26-yard touchdown run for Wilson.
We should also mention that, like most teams, the Seahawks will sometimes run with 6 offensive linemen and no tight ends.
None of this is to say that the tight end isn’t involved at all in the Seahawks’ running game. But he isn’t always put in a position to dramatically affect the play with a big block. Below is a good example of this. As you can see, the Seahawks did have a tight end on the field here.
This run even ended up going to his side. However, instead of blocking on this play, the tight end released to the outside and took a defender with him.
The result was another big run by Russell Wilson.
We’d be lying if we said that the Seahawks never run to the side of a blocking (not releasing) tight end. They do. Just keep in mind, though, that they haven’t exactly had road-grading tight ends blocking for them over the last few seasons. All you need to do is pop in the tape and you’ll see plenty of plays where the play-side tight end either didn’t block effectively or even missed his block. None of this prevented Seattle from having the best running game in the NFL over the last 3 seasons.
Don’t get us wrong. Jimmy Graham will have to block at times, and it would be advantageous for him to do a better job than he did throughout his career in New Orleans. But even if he doesn’t improve, Seattle will still be able to run the ball effectively. As we’ve shown, Darrell Bevell knows how to use alignment and play design to occupy defenders and create running lanes without necessarily needing to block those defenders.
One can easily make the argument that the threat of Jimmy Graham in the passing game will have an effect on the running game that Seattle hasn’t had before. He’ll command tons of attention from the defense. As we saw in New Orleans, he can align anywhere on the field, so don’t doubt for a second that Bevell will find ways to use him on the perimeter to draw the defense and then run inside against lighter fronts.
The trade for Jimmy Graham was a tremendous offseason acquisition for the Seahawks. Graham adds a dimension that Seattle hasn’t had since Russell Wilson took over at quarterback. He’ll be a weapon and a safety blanket for the 4th-year quarterback. He’ll also help define the coverage for Wilson when he aligns on the perimeter, which will only help make Wilson a better passer from the pocket. Ultimately, Graham’s presence makes a team that was already the best in the NFC even better.