Packers vs. Seahawks: Identifying the X-Factor

Nov 20, 2016; Seattle, WA, USA; Seattle Seahawks tight end Jimmy Graham (88) celebrates after scoring a touchdown in the second quarter in a game against the Philadelphia Eagles at CenturyLink Field. Mandatory Credit: Troy Wayrynen-USA TODAY Sports
Nov 20, 2016; Seattle, WA, USA; Seattle Seahawks tight end Jimmy Graham (88) celebrates after scoring a touchdown in the second quarter in a game against the Philadelphia Eagles at CenturyLink Field. Mandatory Credit: Troy Wayrynen-USA TODAY Sports /

Heart, guts and having their backs against the wall will all be essential tools the Packers will bring into battle in their plan to dismantle a formidable 8-3-1 Seahawks squad that marches into Lambeau Field on the heels of a dominant thrashing of a Carolina Panthers team that’s fallen on hard times.

But all the incentive in the world won’t help an ill-equipped defense neutralize the enemy’s imposing tight end that much like Jordy Nelson is making his own case for Comeback Player of the Year.

A slow start in his first year in the Emerald City was followed by a season-ending torn patellar tendon injury had many jumping to the logical conclusion that Seattle GM John Schneider’s decision to cough up a first-round pick and center Max Unger to the Saints for Jimmy Graham would be one he would look back on with deep regret.

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The three-time Pro Bowler found himself with the dual burden of bouncing back from a devastating physical setback along with needing to prove that he could fully integrate himself into a Russell Wilson-led offense.

The seventh-year veteran’s performance has gone beyond the expectations of most media members and fans alike who doubted he could ever return to being anything close to his prior self, considering the long, arduous recovery associated with an injury infamous for torpedoing the careers of former NFL players, including Bears wide receiver Wendell Davis among others.

Against all odds, however, Graham has silenced his doubters and reclaimed his rightful place among the very best at his position by ranking third thus far among his peers in yardage (769) and fifth in receptions (57).

Though his straight-line speed may not be what it once was during his early years in the Bayou, the now 30-year-old weapon can still dominate defenders with his 35-inch reach, extraordinary leaping prowess and burst out of his breaks.

The towering 6-foot-7 pass catcher is particularly difficult to cover in the red-zone area, where in past weeks he has been dazzling spectators with one-handed touchdown grabs in Seattle’s Monday-night thriller versus Buffalo and a well-executed corner route for another score in last week’s Sunday-night tilt that left Panthers’ safety Michael Griffin helpless in his bid to deny his opponent.

Graham is also benefiting from a supporting cast headlined by silky-smooth route runner Doug Baldwin in the slot along with physical wide out Jermaine Kearse and the fleet-footed Tyler Lockett, who flashes 4.35 speed.

How the Packers choose to limit the damage against that receiver corps is anyone’s guess and it may come down to a case of picking your poison as far as singling out who will see double-team coverages.

In the absence of anyone that even remotely resembles a shutdown cornerback, Dom Capers will need to scheme his way into generating any sort of pressure on Wilson given the state of his two top edge rushers (Clay Matthews and Nick Perry) with the former out with a hand injury and the latter questionable with an assortment of limitations, including a bum shoulder and balky hamstring that’s been hampering him for weeks.

Though the book on Wilson has always been to keep the mobile threat inside the pocket, the former third-round pick turned the corner last year by becoming an excellent pocket passer by completing 72.8 percent of his passes, averaging 8.75 yards per attempt and tossing 31 touchdowns against seven interceptions when he stood tall between his bookends.

Those numbers not only made him the most effective pocket passer in 2015, but were the best put up by any quarterback in similar circumstances in three years.

So with that being the case, how do the Packers prevent No. 3 from targeting Graham, who is a mismatch for any linebacker or defensive back the Packers will put on the field?

Over the course of the season, Green Bay has not only allowed the likes of Eric Ebron and Jordan Reed to put up numbers, but even less-heralded types have achieved success, including Jack Doyle, Austin Hooper and the combination of C.J. Fiedorowicz and Ryan Griffin in last Sunday’s 21-13 victory.

To date, the Packers’ D has surrendered the second-most yardage (851) and fifth-most receptions (71) to the tight-end position.

One player that has often been assigned to cover the opposition’s tight end is slot corner/safety Micah Hyde, who lacks the quickness to keep up with more athletic tight-end options, as well as consistently demonstrating poor anticipatory skills in that he is often a beat late to the ball, particularly on slant plays and other in-breaking routes.

The fourth-year pro was seen getting caught out of position on a late-game completion to DeAndre Hopkins last week that the Texans’ receiver took advantage of by cutting inside his defender and taking it to the house.

Entrusting either Jake Ryan or Joe Thomas with the grueling task of blanketing Graham isn’t a realistic option, as neither linebacker has proven to be adept at dropping into coverage.

Safeties Morgan Burnett and Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, on the other hand, are both more than capable of chipping in to occasionally provide double coverage on the North Carolina native, although they both have other roles to perform (Burnett as a dime linebacker and Dix as a roving free safety) that would keep either one from following the tight end on a play-to-play basis.

Therefore, by process of elimination, the onus may be on cornerback LaDarius Gunter to shadow Graham, which makes sense from the standpoint that the second-year cover man possesses the physicality and length to go toe-to-toe with big long-striding receivers (see Alshon Jeffery).

But even Gunter is no match for the Seahawks’ tight end from a size/reach perspective. Furthermore, the Miami Hurricane product isn’t blessed with a second gear to stay with Graham on deep routes down the seam.

The former high-flying rebounder on the basketball court can also soar high over his Packer adversaries on jump balls, making this a nightmare matchup any way you slice it.

Next: Jordy Nelson: Comeback Player of the Year?

Graham is the X-factor that the Packers don’t have an answer for and could be a primary reason why Cheesehead supporters far and wide will be focusing on looking ahead to 2017 this time next week.