The Seahawks have lagged in red zone efficiency this season leading some to wonder how the team could get tight end Jimmy Graham more involved.
It wasn’t going to be hard for the Seahawks to win the battle of the red zone last Saturday against Detroit for one simple reason — the Lions didn’t run one play inside the 20, never getting past Seattle’s 33-yard-line.
Seattle, meanwhile, scored touchdowns on three of four possessions inside the 20 en route to a 26-6 win over the Lions.
Such red zone efficiency, though, has been more the exception than the norm this season for the Seahawks, who ranked just 27th in the regular season in the NFL, scoring touchdowns on just 46.63 percent of trips inside the 20.
Scoring on drives inside the 20 is always critical, but every scoring opportunity will take on added urgency Saturday when the Seahawks play a divisional playoff game at Atlanta, which led the NFL in points this season with 540, ranking ninth in red zone scoring at 61.9 percent.
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In many ways, red zone numbers are merely reflections of an offense as a whole — better offenses overall tend to be better inside the 20, as well.
Seahawks offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell said this week that red zone numbers can’t really be separated from others.
“It’s still a work in progress,’’ Bevell said. “Every time we’re trying to put our fingers in all the holes. We got the run game going, we got the third down going, then red zone adds to it. It’s continuing to execute and continuing to make plays all the way through, every drive It’s always something, you’re just always continue to work on it. Whether you can run it in, which we were able to do, you can throw it in, we’re always looking to do that.”
Many fans, though, also wonder why the team doesn’t just throw it more to Jimmy Graham when close to the end zone.
In fact, it’s worth remembering that improving red zone offense was the most specific reason the team acquired Graham in a trade with New Orleans in the spring of 2015.
Despite getting to two Super Bowls in 2013 and 2014 the Seahawks relatively struggled in the red zone, in 2013 converting on 53.03 trips inside the 20, 14th in the NFL, and dropping to 51.52 percent in 2014, 20th in the NFL.
The hope was that adding the 6-7, 265-pound Graham — a college basketball player at Miami — would give the Seahawks an unbeatable matchup inside the 20.
Consider that in his final season with New Orleans in 2014 he ranked second in the NFL with nine touchdowns inside the end zone.
In two years and 27 games in Seattle, though, Graham has just five touchdowns in the red zone, which in all the endless debate about how he has been used by the Seahawks may be the most relevant number since it’s the area the team most hoped he’d help improve.
It’s not as if Graham is never targeted in the red zone.
Graham had 18 passes thrown his way inside the 20 this season, which according to Pro Football Reference was tied for 12th most in the NFL and most among Seahawks (Doug Baldwin had 17 and Jermaine Kearse 16).
And while his 22 percent of his team’s targets is just 24th in the NFL it’s not far off the usage of some other premier receivers/tight ends in the NFL — Carolina’s Greg Olsen got 24.2 percent of his team’s red zone targets this season, for instance, and Dallas’ Dez Bryant was just ahead of Graham at 22.6.
But Graham caught just seven of those 18 passes (38.8 percent) for four touchdowns.
And maybe even more of an issue are Graham’s targets inside the 10, which to many seem like an even more likely place to try to get him the ball.
According to PFF, Graham has been targeted just twice inside the 10, with one reception – a 1-yard touchdown pass late in a blowout of Carolina (the score put Seattle up 37-7.
Baldwin and Kearse heave each been targeted eight times inside the 10 (Baldwin catching five for 13 yards and three touchdowns and Kearse catching one for two yards and a touchdown).
Seattle coaches have consistently said they’ve tried to get the ball to Graham in the red zone — or outside of it — as often as they can, but that the key is for it to come from within the offense, not forcing it to him just to force it to him.
While have some have wondered if opponents aren’t sometimes double teaming Graham more once Seattle gets close — that appeared to be the case on the final play of the New Orleans game, when Russell Wilson instead threw to Kearse, who caught the pass just outside of the end zone — Bevell said he hasn’t necessarily sensed that.
“I don’t know if they pay any extra attention than they do when he’s in the field,’’ Bevell said. “When Jimmy Graham is out there, he’s a factor for us and they have to pay attention to him.”
It’s also worth noting that Graham’s 65 receptions for 932 yards this season were each Seattle records for a tight end.
Graham, though, has been relatively quiet lately, with 11 catches for 191 yards and one touchdown in the last five games after averaging five catches and 64 yards per game over the first 12 games of the season.
The Seahawks will take more Graham catches anywhere they can get them Saturday. But getting as many of them in the red zone may be a key to having another game to play this season.