Asked in March if there was any way the 49ers could counter the Seattle Seahawks’ recent acquisition of 6-foot-7 tight end Jimmy Graham, general manager Trent Baalke had a quip at the ready.
“Not unless you can find a 6-6 safety,” he said. “If you can find one of those, I’ll take him.”
Baalke never found anyone with that exact profile, but he did draft a big-body safety, 6-1, 221-pound Jaquiski Tartt, in the second round two months later. On Thursday night at Levi’s Stadium, Tartt is one of several players who likely will cover Graham, who is new to the 49ers-Seahawks rivalry but quite familiar to the 49ers.
They’ve faced the former New Orleans Saints star once in each of the past four seasons, with Graham making 25 catches for 253 yards and four touchdowns in that span. In the Saints’ 2011 NFC divisional playoff loss to the 49ers, he caught two touchdown passes, including a 66-yarder, and finished with five receptions for 103 yards.
Graham initially seemed to be an odd fit on a Seahawks team that has had a run-first mentality and has lacked – proudly so – star power at its skill positions. But he began to get into a groove Sunday when he was targeted 12 times and caught eight passes for 140 yards against the Carolina Panthers.
0 100-yard receiving games by 49ers tight end Vernon Davis since the 2013 Super Bowl
“Early in the year, he wasn’t really the focal point in their offense,” 49ers safety Antoine Bethea said. “This past game – he showed up on film a lot.”
In the past, the 49ers had an easy solution for talented tight ends. Linebacker Patrick Willis was more than fast enough to keep pace downfield and was an excellent tackler and pursuer when the tight end blocked on runs.
With Willis retired, new defensive coordinator Eric Mangini may have to get more creative.
Inside linebackers NaVorro Bowman and Michael Wilhoite have not held up well in pass protection this season. Instead, the 49ers’ defensive strength – at least against the pass – is at safety.
The 49ers at times have used both Tartt and 2013 first-round pick Jimmie Ward in their special packages. Another option is seldom-used cornerback Dontae Johnson, who at 6-2 and 200 pounds has more length than the rest of the 49ers’ defensive backs.
“We do have good personnel where we can kind of switch it up and put some different guys on (Graham) and give him some different looks,” Bethea said. “It’s all a matter of how coach Mangini wants to go into the game and how he wants to defend him.”
Mangini said the concern is the Seahawks still like to run when Graham is in the game, even when he is lined up like a wide receiver. When that happens, the 49ers would want someone stout – like a linebacker – on the field.
“Add the short week to it and there are some things you can do well and you can do effectively,” Mangini said, “and there are other things you might like to do but this isn’t really the game for it.”
While the Seahawks got their first 100-yard outing of the season from their top tight end Sunday, Graham’s counterpart with the 49ers, Vernon Davis, hasn’t reached 100 receiving yards since the Super Bowl three seasons ago.
Offensive coordinator Geep Chryst said that Davis was on a “pitch count” Sunday against the Baltimore Ravens, which is why he didn’t start and was limited to 34 snaps. Davis, coming back from a knee injury, had no catches.
25 Catches made by tight end Jimmy Graham in four games against the 49ers over the last four seasons
In recent meetings, the Seahawks have done an excellent job of shutting down Davis and the 49ers’ other pass catchers. But Seattle has uncharacteristically struggled against tight ends this season.
The St. Louis Rams’ Jared Cook finished with 85 yards in Week 1, the Cincinnati Bengals’ Tyler Eifert had 90 yards and two touchdowns in Week 5, and Carolina’s Greg Olsen had 131 yards and a touchdown – the game winner with 32 seconds remaining – on Sunday.
“With the game on the line, he (Olsen) made some clutch plays,” Chryst said, “and we’ve got to take advantage of wherever that opportunity is.”