GREEN BAY - If the opening game against the Chicago Bears is an indicator of future results, the Green Bay Packers will have to be creative if they want tight end Jimmy Graham to have an impact.
Or, as quarterback Aaron Rodgers said, make the opponent pay the consequences of devoting so much attention to him.
“What that does is open it up for everybody else,” Rodgers said Wednesday. “You saw Randall (Cobb) had a big game, a lot of catches. Davante (Adams) got going into the second half; Geronimo (Allison) had a big game.
“So, teams are going to have to figure out how to play him down the field, and also how to play him in the red zone. Obviously, he’s a big threat.”
The Bears held Graham to two catches for 8 yards, using two different approaches to slow him down.
When the Packers were between the 20s and Graham was flexed just outside the tackle, Bears outside linebackers spread out and bumped Graham off his route before rushing the passer. When the Packers got into the red zone, the Bears covered him up with a linebacker and safety.
Rodgers said he had no choice but to go to the other receivers, especially in the red zone where Graham is most dangerous.
“There was obviously a concerted effort by them once we got inside the 30 to double him,” Rodgers said. “So, he was facing a lot of double teams, whether there’s a guy on him and a guy over the top, or if it’s just a true cloud to his side.”
The lack of production could be looked at another way. Graham caught five passes for 47 yards and one touchdown in the Seattle Seahawks’ last four games last season. Either he’s starting to slip at age 31 or it’s proving easier to take him out of games with double coverage.
Rodgers broke loose in the second half after returning from what he said was a sprained left knee, completing 17 of 23 passes for 273 yards and three touchdowns. Graham did not catch any of those passes.
This week, the Minnesota Vikings could certainly double cover Graham if they choose. Cornerbacks Xavier Rhodes and Trae Waynes are fully capable of covering receivers one-on-one and their pass rush is so good Rodgers – should he play – won’t have much time to get them the ball.
The Vikings could choose to cover Graham one-on-one with safety Harrison Smith, who is among the best in the NFL at his position. Smith is 6-2, 214 pounds and can run with any tight end in the league.
Coach Mike Zimmer, who calls the defense, doesn’t have to rely on one scheme to neutralize the Packers’ offense and may choose to blitz Rodgers more than the Bears did. That would leave some one-on-ones in the secondary and potentially set up Graham for some targets.
The last time the Packers had a receiving tight end like Graham was 2016 when Jared Cook manned the top position. The Vikings, playing the same scheme as they do now, held him to seven catches for 78 yards.
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“It’s an excellent scheme,” coach Mike McCarthy said. “Mike does an excellent job and they’ve stayed healthy. They have a lot of experience playing together. They’re talented, good football players and you can see the regularity and the consistency of how they play to one another, the ability to try to take away concepts from the offense.”
Both Rodgers and McCarthy said that Graham’s contribution shouldn’t be judged on one game and that the circumstances of the Bears' defensive plan made them go away from him.
From a play-time standpoint, Graham played 59 of 60 snaps, Lance Kendricks 19, Marcedes Lewis seven and Robert Tonyan zero.
Of Graham’s 59 snaps, only 14 came with his hand down in a traditional tight end alignment. Another 21 came with him flexed a few yards on either side of the tackle. On the other 24, he was lined up in a receiver position.
It’s unlikely the Vikings will employ the same plan the Bears did in using their outside linebackers to knock Graham off his route because it’s a fairly unusual scheme defensive coordinator Vic Fangio had months to devise.
The Vikings are coming off a game in which they allowed little-known San Francisco 49ers tight end George Kittle to catch five passes for 90 yards.
The big thing for Rodgers is making sure Graham gets more than four targets.
“You’ve got to get him more opportunities out in the field, but when you’re going to roll coverage to him in the red zone, other guys are going to be wide open,” Rodgers said. “Maybe not wide open but going to have the matchups you’re looking for.
“He’s a fantastic player, and at some point he’s going to get a lot of opportunities.”