RENTON — Shutting down All-Pro tight end Jimmy Graham this season proved nearly impossible for NFL defenses. The Saints’ star finished the regular season with 86 catches, 1,215 receiving yards and 16 touchdowns, which landed him 49 of the 50 votes to the Associated Press first team.
For the Seahawks in the injury absence of LB K.J. Wright, limiting Graham Saturday in the NFC divisional round (1:35 p.m., FOX) is going to take a group effort.
“Everybody’s going to have their shot at him,” said linebackers coach Ken Norton. “We have an equal opportunity defense. We play team defense. But depending on the call — zone or man — everybody’s going to have a shot on him.”
Graham is the pure version of a pass-catching tight end. His NFL combine results were so rare — 4.56-second 40-yard dash, 38.5-inch vertical leap, 120-inch broad jump — that the Saints used a third-round pick on him in the 2010 draft even though he had a single year of college football experience.
Graham played basketball at the University of Miami (2005-09), which allowed him to develop a trait — shielding defenders with his body — that allowed him to become quarterback Drew Brees’ favorite target.
“A lot of the tight ends that have played have a basketball background. It’s like getting rebounds,” Norton said. “They’re bigger than everybody. They have really good hands. They know how to box guys out, and they’re really good competitors. Jimmy’s a guy that when the ball goes up, he really goes after it.
“It’s like the ball is going off the rim, and he’s going high to get it. The guy has a really special knack and instinct of knowing where the ball is, how to get open in our zones. He is really terrific at understanding defenses.”
New Orleans coach Sean Payton was complimentary of Seattle’s success against Graham, and eager to find a solution.
“The main thing is recognizing how they’re taking him away,” he said Tuesday via teleconference. “There’s some things that Seattle does a very good job with, just within in their base scheme, and how they play their coverages.
“They’re very active in the secondary. They do a great job of applying pressure on the quarterback. Put those two things together and it becomes very challenging.”
Covering Graham was Wright’s primary responsibility Dec. 2 at CenturyLink Field. Wright thrived, helping keep the big guy to three catches for 42 yards and a touchdown in Seattle’s 34-7 win. Wright on numerous occasions was put with Graham in one-on-one situations, yet didn’t have trouble keeping in check the former power forward.
Although coach Pete Carroll said Tuesday that Wright was scheduled to run at practice Thursday, a month after surgery to repair a broke bone in his right foot, his chance to play would be in the NFC Championship game, if the Seahawks prevail Saturday.
Stopping Graham will fall in large part to Wright’s backup, Malcolm Smith. Smith is six feet and 226 pounds, Wright is 6-4 and 246, and Graham is 6-7 and 265. A physical mismatch looms.
Carroll refused to rule out as a solution any member of his No. 1-ranked pass defense. He also didn’t offer much insight.
“We’re going to show you that on game day,” Carroll said. “Malcolm has done a great job of stepping into his spot, but that’s just part of figuring it out. Hopefully, there will be a couple of surprises left by game day.”
In his start against St. Louis, Smith made five tackles and returned an interception 37 yards for a touchdown. That wasn’t lost on LB Bobby Wagner as he sat in his locker answering questions.
“It affects us a lot just because K.J. is a big part of our defense. He does a lot for us. He communicates a lot with us,” he said. “But I think Malcolm is going to do a great job and Bruce (Irvin) is going to do a great job in his place.
“It’s a team effort. I think a lot of us are going to get our shot one-on-one with him. We just have to know where he’s at on the field.”
In December, SS Kam Chancellor and CB Richard Sherman took turns covering Graham when Wright was defending the run. Given Graham’s height advantage, the pair may be called on again.
“The corners, the safeties, the linebackers — everybody’s going to be matched up on him,” Norton said.
Harvin practicing, Luke Willson back