Packers analysis: End-zone plays reveal slippage in tight end Jimmy Graham's game

Eric Baranczyk and Pete Dougherty
Green Bay Press-Gazette
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Green Bay Packers tight end Jimmy Graham (80), defended by Detroit Lions strong safety Quandre Diggs (28), makes a catch during the first half of an NFL football game, Sunday, Oct. 7, 2018, in Detroit.

Jimmy Graham just had his best game since signing with the Green Bay Packers last offseason.

Yet, his six-catch, 76-yard performance in the Packers’ 31-23 loss to the Detroit Lions signaled that as he closes in on age 32 (in November), Graham is no longer the athlete the Packers were hoping he’d be when they signed him last March.

That’s not to say Graham isn’t any better than the aging tight end the Packers signed last year, Martellus Bennett. He clearly is a much better receiver.

But the Packers gambled that Graham, playing with a premier quarterback and in Mike McCarthy’s offensive scheme, would still be a high-impact player for their offense even in his early 30s. They thought he might still be a difference maker all over the field and at minimum would provide a fearsome red-zone threat who would put up double-digit touchdowns this season.

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But Sunday at Detroit, with starting receivers Randall Cobb (hamstring) and Geronimo Allison (concussion) not playing, was a game the Packers needed Graham to tilt the field their way, and he didn’t have the speed and explosiveness to do that.

Graham had his moments, for sure, including a contested 24-yard catch on a double move in the second quarter. But two plays in the end zone stood out as the kind Graham was brought in make but simply wasn’t athletic enough anymore to finish.

The one that jumped out most was on the first drive of the second half when the Packers faced a first down at Detroit’s 22. The 6-foot-7 Graham was split wide right and matched one-on-one against 5-9 cornerback Nevin Lawson. Big advantage, Packers.

When Aaron Rodgers spun out of the pocket, Graham improvised a short stop route and drifted to the end zone for a jump ball. Rodgers’ throw was on the mark, but as Graham boxed out Lawson the ball went right through his raised hands.

This was exactly the kind of play the Packers signed Graham to make, especially after cutting another red-zone threat, Jordy Nelson, in March. But as Graham backpedaled and battled Lawson, he just didn’t have enough left to snag the contested pass.

Earlier in the game, he also had a shot at short touchdown catch but couldn’t make the play. On second down from the Lions’ 4, the Packers had the matchup they wanted for a short fade route with Graham on the outside left against 6-foot cornerback Teez Tabor.

Rodgers threw the ball high to Graham’s back shoulder, but after jostling with Tabor the tight end was unable to flip his hips, keep his feet and jump for the ball. So as Graham fell backward the ball landed harmlessly out of bounds. The Packers failed to score on third down, and when Mason Crosby missed the chip shot they came away empty when, trailing 17-0, they badly needed the seven points.

Brian Gutekunst, the Packers’ general manager, knew the risks of signing Graham to a three-year deal that averages $10 million and is paying Graham $13 million this season. Graham is in his early 30s, which is always a concern, and after averaging 89 receptions and 11.5 touchdowns in his final four seasons at New Orleans, his averages had dropped to 57 catches and six touchdowns in three years with Seattle.

But Graham also been miscast with the Seahawks, a more run-oriented team that often used him as a blocker even though he’s basically a glorified receiver. And he caught 10 touchdowns last season, so he at least was a big factor for the Seahawks in the red zone.

But Graham has only one touchdown catch this season. A double-digit score total is quickly falling out of his reach.

Yes, he has often drawn extra coverage in the red zone, which has helped some of the Packers’ other receivers. And he ranks second on the team in receptions (22).

But defenses have been routinely jamming and chipping him at the line of scrimmage, and it has worked. He’s just not explosive and athletic enough anymore to avoid or shrug off those shots and get downfield. And when he had the chances to come through Sunday with a shorthanded receiving crew and against single coverage, he just didn’t have it.

Action Jackson

Rookie Josh Jackson had his rough moments Sunday, but he also showed why he’s a promising cornerback and the kind of player the Packers want on their roster.

Specifically, on the same play where he made his biggest mistake of the day, he also showed that he’s a true football player with heart. It came on the 60-yard pass to Kenny Golladay in the first quarter.

Jackson had good one-on-one coverage on Golladay along the sidelines and should have had a shot at an interception. But with the ball in mid-flight he slowed and then stopped, which allowed Golladay to climb over his back and make the catch while Jackson floundered like he was swimming out of water.

However, after ending up face down on the turf, Jackson didn’t sulk or concede. He popped to his feet and gave chase. After Galloday stiff-armed Ha Ha Cllinton-Dix to the ground, Jackson caught up and made the tackle at the 5.

Though Jackson made a big coverage error on that play, he also had his good moments playing the ball. On the game’s first play he broke up a pass to Marvin Jones over the middle. And on first-and-goal from the 7 at the end of the first half he blanketed the 6-4, 213-pound Galloday on a slant pattern and prevented a touchdown.

Extra points

» Yes, the Packers were down 24-0 at halftime, so they largely had to abandon the run. And yes, Jamaal Williams is a superior pass protector and Ty Montgomery is a running back who can play like a receiver because he was, in fact, a receiver.

But Aaron Jones is the Packers’ most dynamic player with the ball in his hands, and there’s not a close second. It’s hard to understand why he had only one touch, a reception, in the second half. With his explosive running ability, why not, if nothing else, throw him checkdowns and swing passes to see if he can make a big play?

» It sure looks like right tackle Bryan Bulaga is going to have a tough time making it through the season with his injured back. Because of the injury he doesn’t have good knee bend as a pass protector anymore, and while he’s still blocking OK, he’s getting overpowered more. A couple times it was painful just watching his back get bent backward. It will be a big surprise if he plays all 16 games.


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