Containing Graham vital for Eagles
The Saints' 6-7 tight end Jimmy Graham is hard to match up against, but there are ways to hold him down.
FOR THE EAGLES, it likely will take a village to stop Jimmy Graham. (Angry villagers with pitchforks might work better, but the pitchforks are against the rules - just another NFL conspiracy to promote offense.)
The New Orleans tight end is the best on the planet. Eagles coach Chip Kelly talks about how Saints coach Sean Payton and quarterback Drew Brees "have a lot of toys," but Graham is the most fun, a combination of speed and size (6-7) and athleticism that is unmatched in the NFL. The numbers are plain: 86 catches, 1,215 yards, 16 touchdowns. Nobody else playing the position comes close.
And, based upon what we have seen so far this season - and especially in the last 2 weeks - there is no individual Eagles defender who is an obvious choice to shadow Graham by himself.
As Kelly said before yesterday's practice, "Just look at how they use Jimmy Graham and line him up all over the place. I think that's the one thing about Jimmy that makes him such a special player is he's probably too athletic for linebackers to cover, but he's too big for defensive backs to cover, and he's never going to be in the same spot. He doesn't line up as a traditional tight end attached to the tackle. He could be the lone receiver. He could be in the back in the backfield.
"They move him all around and get him to favorable matchups and that's the dilemma when you face that offense."
At which point, Kelly went on to recite the names of just about every eligible receiver on the Saints' roster, potential targets all. Still, it comes back to Graham in many ways. The Eagles are favored in Saturday night's NFC wild-card game and they deserve to be favored. It is fair to expect their offense to operate more efficiently on a cold January night than the Saints' offense. The numbers say it and common sense says it.
But it doesn't take much to turn a game at this time of year on its head - one big play, one broken tackle, one vision from 2003 of Eagles linebacker Barry Gardner chasing after Bucs receiver Joe Jurevicius.
That is the Graham factor.
"He's the No. 1 target they have and he's been their most consistent target," Eagles defensive coordinator Bill Davis said. "He's a big, athletic tight end, catches everything thrown near him. They move him all over the place, so it's tough to practice and get a beat on how to help guys on him.
"He is the No. 1 target, but one of the attributes of all great offenses and like this one, this ball goes to everybody. It goes to the open man, and Drew Brees does a great job of doing that quickly."
The Eagles have done OK against tight ends this season. The last two games, though, Chicago's Martellus Bennett nicked them and Dallas' Jason Witten pummeled them (12 catches, 135 yards). Davis will tell you that at least part of the reason why Witten had such a big day was because the Eagles were more concerned with wide receiver Dez Bryant, and tailored their coverages accordingly.
"You move it around and great players play great, especially this time of the year when it's playoff football," Davis said.
The truth is that Marques Colston could catch 70 balls a season in his sleep, and that Kenny Stills gives the Saints a deep speed threat, and that Pierre Thomas and Darren Sproles can hurt you out of the backfield, and that Brees is very good at locating the most dangerous option.
Still, Graham stands out. The Eagles' defensive plan likely begins there, perhaps with linebacker Mychal Kendricks. The numbers say that Kendricks is the Eagles' fastest linebacker, but he isn't as fast as Graham and gives up 7 inches besides. When Kendricks talks about Graham, he says, "Teams are playing all types of coverages on him. It's football, man. People win at times on him and people lose at times on him."
One key, Kendricks said, is to "attack his hands, try to separate him from the ball." But even more important is the idea of knocking Graham off stride before he can get started. The Eagles did that well against Cardinals wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald and Lions wide receiver Calvin Johnson - often with a linebacker at the line of scrimmage, like Connor Barwin, getting that first jam.
For an offense that relies as much on quick reads and quick throws as Brees and the Saints do, disrupting that timing might be the key - the first chuck, and then a combination of defenders picking up after that.
"Most definitely," Kendricks said. "That's a big thing."
Put it this way:
If the Eagles win the game and Jimmy Graham does not go crazy, you will hear the word "rerouting" an awful lot.
On Twitter: @theidlerich