FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- The New England Patriots are used to having the dominant presence at tight end. This week, their defense will have to account for such a player.
New Orleans Saints tight end Jimmy Graham is a matchup nightmare. He has the speed to test a defense vertically, the quickness to get open over the middle, and at 6-foot-7 and 265 pounds with four years of basketball experience with the Miami Hurricanes, he also has the size to win jump-balls.
How does a defense account for a player who can do so much?
"Everybody has tried everything," Bill Belichick said, "tried to jam him at the line, at times he’s had linebackers on him, safeties on him, double cover him. Each team’s kind of got some of their own matchups. But he’s seen a lot of different coverages -- man, zone, in-and-out, short-and-deep, jam at the line of scrimmage -- he’s seen all of it."
Whatever the coverage, Graham has beaten it. He leads the NFL in receptions (37) and yards (593), and ranks second in receiving touchdowns (6).
His production is off the charts, relative to the rest of the Saints offense.
There's no doubt that stopping Graham will be priority No. 1 for the Patriots defense, and we'll likely see a mixture of coverages to keep the Saints guessing.
Reviewing some film on the Saints offense, it's pretty clear that teams have tried just about everything.
Graham's slowest performance of the season was a four-catch, 45-yard, one-touchdown performance against the Falcons. They would sometimes cover him with a cornerback, and a linebacker would help out over the middle or a safety over the top.
On this play, for example, the Falcons are in a simple Cover 2 Sink, with five defenders dropping into intermediate zones, two safeties over the top and four rushers. However, a cornerback is lined up over Graham, and a safety rolls over on him when Graham gets deep into his route.
Brees was initially looking down the middle, hoping to attack the safeties with a deep post, but thought twice once he saw a corner in coverage and went to his next read, wide receiver Kenny Stills. The pass would eventually fall incomplete.
The Patriots could match up cornerback Aqib Talib on Graham. He lines up all over the field, and according to stats website Pro Football Focus (via MassLive.com), he actually spends more time as a wide receiver (166 snaps, 65 on the outside) than at tight end (103 snaps).
The problem with cornerbacks in coverage on Graham is that they can sometimes be boxed out by his big frame.
He had a 27-yard touchdown catch against the Dolphins for that very reason. In fact, the Dolphins had him doubled over the top and still couldn't stop the highly athletic Graham from making the catch.
Graham is used to winning matchups like this due to his basketball experience, and in those situations, all you can hope for is to make life as difficult for him as possible.
"He's so tough because of what he is," said Talib. "He's 6-7, 250, 260 (pounds) or whatever, and he's got ball skills out this world. That's the main thing that makes him so tough."
In so doing, they also dictate matchups at times.
One strategy the Patriots have been known to use on tight ends is to chip them at the line of scrimmage, and to have a safety help out in man coverage at that point. They used just such a strategy against Chargers tight end Antonio Gates in 2011, and while that was a different situation with a different cast of defensive players, the Patriots could borrow on some of the lessons from that game.
They were able to hold Gates without a reception, and he was targeted just once the whole game.
Where ever he went, the Patriots jammed him and pushed him around. They would often have
Rob Ninkovich, then a linebacker, jammed Gates off the line on this particular play. Safety Patrick Chung then rolled into coverage, further disrupting his path within the five-yard window.
Not only does this get Graham off his route, but it could throw quarterback Drew Brees out of rhythm as well.
It's not a sure bet, though, as Graham proved on his seven-yard touchdown catch against the Falcons.
On the above play, linebacker Kroy Biermann gets a jam on Graham off the line, but once the tight end gets into his pattern, safety Thomas DeCoud is late getting over to help.
It's a tough job, but someone's going to have to do it.
The primary safety in coverage could be Steve Gregory, but there will be multiple linebackers used on him at any given time. Dont'a Hightower seems like the best bet right now, but perhaps Ninkovich could reprise his role. Hightower has the size to give Graham a good jam off the line of scrimmage.
Jamie Collins, specifically, has not played much this season so far. His snap totals by week: two, four, 18, 12, 10. His role, however, has primarily been in pass coverage, where he's been seen on 35 snaps. Perhaps we will see more of him this week in an effort to give Graham multiple looks. He is a rookie, but he was brought in for just such a matchup, and if the Patriots' strategy to stop tight end Tony Gonzalez is any indication, it won't be up to any one particular player.
Unfortunately, more than one player may still not be enough to shut down Graham.
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