The Buffalo Bills desperately need to start getting some production out of T.J. Graham.
The second-year wide receiver is getting ample playing time, but you wouldn’t know it by looking at his numbers.
Graham has played in all 10 games and started four this season, but has just 16 catches for 198 yards and zero touchdowns.
“I don’t even look at it,” Graham said Monday of his stats.
That’s probably for the best.
Even with his track-star speed, he is averaging just 12.4 yards per catch. That would rank tied for 65th in the NFL — if he had enough receptions to qualify among the league leaders. He has only one catch for more than 30 yards this season — a 47-yarder in Week Six against Cincinnati.
Graham played 62 snaps Sunday against Pittsburgh, and for the season has been on the field for about 70 percent of the offensive plays. He’s likely to stay busy in Week 11, because the Bills could be without both starting receivers in veteran Stevie Johnson and rookie Robert Woods because of injuries.
“We have gone through a couple different quarterbacks and a couple different things personnel-wise with what we’ve been trying to get done at points in time,” coach Doug Marrone said. “We need to create positions schematically where we can get more separation. Whether it’s on switch releases, whether we’re attacking different parts of the field, whether it’s in play action or whatever it may be. We have to find a way to get more separation.”
Graham would not use the quarterback rotation as an excuse.
“We figure it out every week. It’s fine. We practice with all those guys,” he said. “We do routes versus air. Our timing is down.”
Graham made just one catch for 5 yards against Pittsburgh. He was targeted four times by EJ Manuel.
“We didn’t get a lot of opportunities to throw it deep because they were putting pressure on our quarterback,” Graham said. “The chances we did have, we should have executed a little better. I don’t know. It was a windy day and first time back for EJ. We’ve just got to figure it out this week and make those plays.”
Graham’s specialty is running go routes designed to take the top off a defense. He’s also used on quicker screen routes at the line of scrimmage. On one of the few plays in which he’s caught the ball over the middle, he was stripped in against Kansas City and the fumble was returned for a touchdown.
The Steelers consistently gave Graham an 8- or 10-yard cushion off the line of scrimmage, not allowing him to stretch their defense.
“When you see a receiver is in position with separations, we’re able to make a lot of plays and make big plays. The one thing that’s happening now is everything is tight,” Marrone said. “Everything is going to be a tight throw; everything is going to be a tight spot.”
Marrone didn’t try to sugarcoat Manuel’s struggles Sunday.
“We know that quarterback didn’t play well Sunday, and he knows that. We have to get him to play better,” the coach said. “This is a quarterback-driven league. You look at the teams where the starting quarterbacks are out or the quarterbacks are titled ‘non-franchise’ quarterbacks, those teams struggle to win. We’re building a franchise quarterback and that’s what we’re trying to get done. In that time, we’re not going to see the production that we like out of a lot of our receivers that have the ability to make plays.”
Graham was asked about his chemistry with Manuel.
“I don’t mind him,” he said. “We just need to get the ball to the right person. Execute and make plays. We all pull for each other in that room. … It’s just a matter of making him comfortable and picking out his favorites and getting the ball to where he needs to feel comfortable.”
Some frustration is understandable among the receivers, Graham included. A review of the “All 22” coaches’ tape available on nfl.com from the Kansas City game showed three different plays on which Graham was open for potential touchdowns, but was either underthrown or not looked at by quarterback Jeff Tuel.
“When that goes up, I think you’re going to see a lot of production and T.J. will be one of the many,” Marrone said, referring to his team’s quarterback play. “We’ve got to get our play up there. Is it just the quarterback? No. Is he an important part of it? Yes. It’s also protection and it’s also about separation and running routes.”
Marrone indicated that Woods is suffering from a high-ankle sprain that he suffered against the Chiefs.
“We need Robert. Robert’s been a very good player for us. … We have to make the right decision with what’s best for the team,” Marrone said. “Whether we sit him this week and then have him healthy for the next five games, or do we play him and take a chance of him not being available if he reinjures that high ankle? I have not made a decision on that yet. I’m probably more leaning to sitting him out right now.”
Johnson, meanwhile, is expected to practice on a limited basis Wednesday after suffering a right groin injury against the Steelers. Marrone said he won’t know about his availability until he’s able to watch Johnson in practice.