Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

Seahawks tight end Jimmy Graham offers a unique challenge for 49ers defense, but one they are familiar with

A familiar foe joined a new team in Seahawks tight end Jimmy Graham, who is working to regain the title of the league's premier match-up nightmare.

SANTA CLARA, Calif. - The 49ers probably thought they were done dealing with Jimmy Graham. But no.

San Francisco became very familiar the Seahawks' new 6'7" tight end when they played against him five times since he came into the league in 2010 with the New Orleans Saints. This season was the first the 49ers weren't scheduled to play the Saints since 2009.

But on the first day of free agency in the spring, the Saints traded Graham, and a fourth-round pick, to Seattle for center Max Unger and their 2015 first-round pick, which turned into linebacker Stephone Anthony.

Now, as a Seahawk, Graham adds a dimension to the two-time defending conference champs that they didn't have previously. And the 49ers get to face him twice a season for the foreseeable future.

Graham is one of two tight ends in league history to register 1,000 yards and 10-plus touchdowns in the same season, joining New England's Rob Gronkowski. Graham did it twice: in 2011 and 2013, when he notched 1,215 yards receiving and 16 scores.

Overall, Graham's career numbers against the 49ers aren't overpowering. His best performance came in 2011's wild card round, when he notched five catches for 103 yards and two touchdowns. But his performance was upstaged by another tight end.

That was the afternoon Vernon Davis scored the go-ahead, 14-yard touchdown with :09 remaining on a 14-yard pass from Alex Smith in what was tabbed "The Catch III," going down as one of the signature plays in recent team history.

Against San Francisco, Graham is averaging five catches and 50.6 yards, and scored four touchdowns in five games, including the postseason.

Joining Seattle, the learning curve for both Graham and offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell has been steeper than perhaps anticipated.

Graham's statistics with his new team:

Opponent Catches Targets Yards Toughdowns
@Rams 6 8 51 1
@Packers 1 2 11 0
Bears 7 8 83 1
Lions 4 5 29 0
@Bengals 3 5 30 0
Panthers 8 12 140 0
Total: 29 40 344 2

After Sunday's loss to the Panthers, when Graham had easily his most productive game of the season, he ranks fifth among tight ends with 344 yards receiving.

The question surrounding Graham's fit with Seattle is the style of offense Bevell deploys. The Seahawks' offense is centered around its physical running attack centered on Marshawn Lynch, while the Saints were conducted by quarterback Drew Brees and head coach Sean Payton, who ran one of the league's premier passing attacks during Graham's New Orleans tenure.

Lynch was a full participation in Tuesday's practice after dealing with a hamstring injury that kept him out of Week's 4 and 5.

"I think (Graham's) doing really well. There's been some time that we've had to go through to just kind of figure it out," Seahawks coach Pete Carroll said. "We had to understand how we can utilize him. We've had a lot of calls in all of our games and last week he really seemed to hook up with Russell very well on some really good timing stuff, and also on some of the open field stuff that happens when Russell scrambles."

Graham is asked to block as an in-line tight end far more often with his new team than he did before, when he mostly a tight end running routes like a receiver. Blocking was never a strength, but he's improving.

"Their ability to get into 11-personnel, the three wide receiver sets with Jimmy Graham, and run the ball effectively with Marshawn, it's a question of how much of the dime packages would you want to be in, where you're better in coverage but you don't have the same type of run fits against their offensive line, against that back," 49ers defensive coordinator Eric Mangini said.

While the 49ers didn't vary their defensive personnel often under former defensive coordinator Vic Fangio, they've mixed things up regularly with Mangini. In passing downs, Mangini has regularly turned to a unique dime package that substitutes a defensive back for a linebacker, where the defensive back will play just behind the defensive line.

Rookie safety Jaquiski Tartt has gotten the majority of those reps. But cornerback Keith Reaser has also been called upon in that role to cover running backs out of the back field. Starting free safety Eric Reid played that position late against the Ravens and running back Justin Forsett, with Tartt playing deep next to Antoine Bethea.

Presumably, the 49ers would use those personnel groupings against Graham on long-yardage plays, given his unique size and athleticism. But, as always, it starts with containing Lynch.

"We want to run the football here," Carroll said. "As people have to work to stop the running game, and then take care of a threat like Jimmy, we're going to find out what that means. We don't know yet. Pretty much everyone's played us normal, and we'll see if that happens this week.?"


Chris Biderman is the Editor-in-Chief of Niners Digest and covers the 49ers from their headquarters in Santa Clara. Chris has been writing about the team since the spring of 2013. The Ohio State alum received his Journalism degree in 2011 and has been working in sports media since 2008. Chris, a Santa Rosa, Calif. native, is also a contributor to the Associated Press covering sports throughout the Bay Area. You can follow Chris on Twitter here.

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