TEMPE, Ariz. -- While the Arizona Cardinals won’t have to worry Sunday night about Marshawn Lynch torching them for long runs and then making an obscene gesture as he dives into the end zone, there will be another Seattle Seahawks offensive weapon who will require as much attention as, if not more than, Lynch drew in the past.
And he’s a familiar foe, no less.
Seahawks tight end Jimmy Graham has returned from a patellar tendon injury that cut short his 2015 season, his first in Seattle, to become an integral part of the Seahawks’ offense. He’s caught 22 passes for 355 yards and a touchdown this season, an average of 71 yards per game and 16.1 yards per catch. Last season, before it prematurely ended in Week 12 against the Pittsburgh Steelers, he averaged 55 yards per game and 12.6 yards per catch.
A bigger role for Graham means more of a concern for the Cardinals.
“Jimmy is definitely becoming a huge focal point in the Seattle offense this year,” cornerback Patrick Peterson said. “You can tell he was a little bit behind last year. He wasn’t getting as many target as he was in New Orleans, although it was a different offense.
“But when you bring that caliber of athlete over there into your offense, you want to find a way to give him the ball.”
That the Seahawks are doing, particularly lately.
Graham has had six catches in each of his past three games, going for 100 yards or better in two. Against the San Francisco 49ers in Week 3, the 29-year-old had 100 yards, then 113 against the New York Jets a week later. He’s also been targeted more recently, seeing nine, eight and nine passes thrown his way in the past three games, respectively.
Graham’s also been involved in Seattle’s early-downs passing game. He has nine catches on first and second downs, respectively, according to ESPN Stats & Information. And those are the two downs on which Cardinals defensive coordinator James Bettcher said Arizona needs to eyeball Graham the closest.
“He’s an exceptional tight end, there’s no doubt about it,” Bettcher said. “You got to know where he’s at on first and second down, and on third down. You got to know where he’s at any down and distance, any field position. He’s a key target when you look at field-position targets. He’s a key target with [wide receiver Doug] Baldwin, and in situational football he’s a key target just like Baldwin is.”
Bettcher looked at Graham as a major reason why Seattle’s offense has become more pass-heavy this season. Quarterback Russell Wilson is dropping back more in 2016 than he has in the past, and he’s running less.
Of Graham’s 22 catches, 13 have been on passes thrown up to 10 yards in the air, while seven were thrown 11 to 20 yards and two were thrown 21 or longer, according to ESPN Stats & Information.
This is the Graham that Cardinals coach Bruce Arians expected to face when the Seahawks traded for him before the 2015 season. Graham put up 134 yards and two touchdowns on nine catches against the Cardinals in a 2013 victory when he was with the Saints. Last season with Seattle, however, Graham had just 41 yards on three catches, but he also had two drops.
Graham now “looks just like himself,” Arians said, especially with how he attacks 50-50 balls. Wilson, meanwhile, called Graham the best tight end in the NFL because of his versatility.
But tight ends haven’t been a liability for the Cardinals this season the way they once were.
In 2013, they accounted for 1,227 yards and 17 touchdowns on 97 catches against Arizona. This season, tight ends have 16 catches for 132 yards and no touchdowns.
Defending Graham won’t just be the job of one man, Bettcher said. Arizona will use various defenders and schemes on him, depending on the situation.
“He’s a great talent,” safety Tyrann Mathieu said. “We take pride in it. We take it as a challenge. So, no matter who has him, we’ll get the job done.”