On the eve of the Eagles first playoff game in three seasons, we dive in to a complex task that has most likely been at the forefront of Billy Davis’ mind since the final gun in Dallas: how to slow down New Orleans tight end Jimmy Graham? Notice the word ‘stop’ was omitted from the prompt because, simply put, the All-Pro from Miami is too good to try to eliminate from the gameplan. Graham will get his over the course of every game, no matter the opponent. The key for defensive coordinator Davis and his vastly improved unit is to make sure they prevent Graham from taking over the game, much like they were able to do with WRs Calvin Johnson, Dez Bryant, Brandon Marshall, & Larry Fitzgerald down the stretch.
Much like some of the other towering targets that the Saints have provided Drew Brees over his tenure, Graham is the ideal target for the slight-ish Brees. He is explosive down the seam, he has a staggering catch radius, his vertical allows him to reach balls no one on the field can, and his gigantic, mitt-like hands make him a weapon on nearly every play. His 16 receiving touchdowns are tops in the league and you can bet that the Saints, with their struggles on the road, would prefer to make him their primary option.
Despite Graham’s production and the myriad of ways Brees and head coach Sean Payton utilize him, he is just one player and an effective approach can drastically alter the Saints gameplan. Graham has had games where he’s racked up huge yardage as well as been a scoring threat. The key is to come in with a defined approach to eliminate one aspect of his effectiveness and also put the Saints in a position where they have to look elsewhere. Sean Payton and Brees are as effective a coach-quarterback duo in the league when it comes to finding creative ways to attack the opposition and take advantage of their weapons, most notably Grhaam.
For all of Graham’s accolades and the mismatch he presents to any defense, there are ways to slow him down and cut off a vital cog of the potent Saints offense. The New England Patriots were able to hold him off the score-sheet entirely, and he was held to under 100 yards receiving in the team’s last five games (Saints went 2-3 over that stretch). Granted, four of the five games were against top defenses (CAR 2x, SEA, STL), the Eagles unit has shown the ability to eliminate, or at least limit opposing team’s top options. Graham is by no means the only weapon to worry about when it comes to the Saints, but the team has the personnel and scheme to handle him. The key to doing so is identifying him at all times, take every and all opportunities to get physical with him, throw different defenders at him, and most importantly: execute.
With Marques Colston’s best years behind him and Lance Moore’s production falling off a bit, Graham has served as both the team’s primary deep threat along with Brees’ safety valve. Especially with Pierre Thomas out of Saturday night’s game, one can only expect the future Hall of Fame QB to look in Graham’s direction even more. Much like the Cowboys’ heavy use of Jason Witten in the week 17 game against the Eagles, expect New Orleans to put heavy pressure on Philadelphia’s ability to guard the quick passing game and compete with the physicality and explosiveness that Graham brings to the table.
Despite Graham still turning in several highlight reel plays towards the end of the season, there were elements of his production that saw a slight decline. After turning in four games with nine or more catches over the Saints first eight games (New Orleans went 6-2), he had none over the team’s 5-3 close to the season. The Eagles, who have given up 25 passing touchdowns this season (good for 14th in the NFL), have just as much to throw at the Saints and Graham than some of the other defenses that have found ways to limit the tight ends damage.
Expect a great deal of the responsibilities of covering and disrupting Graham to be put one a handful of Eagles defenders. With Trent Cole having limitations when it comes to coverage from the linebacker spot and the erratic play of Patrick Chung, expect a lot to fall on the shoulders of Mychal Kendricks, Connor Barwin, Brandon Boykin, and Nate Allen (and Earl Wolff should he see the field). Jason Witten is far from the player he once was, but considering the job the team was able to do on him and Dallas’ Gavin Escobar, one cannot help but be confident with the players charged with taking on the Saints biggest weapon.
With Thomas out, expect at least one of those players to be dedicated to Darren Sproles. After seeing the job Kendricks was able to do on Witten, I expect his primary responsibilities to be either blitzing or checking Graham in coverage. Of all the defenders I mentioned, Kendricks is the one with the best combination of size and speed to handle such a tall task. While Kendricks’ talent is impossible not to see, the one thing he has struggled with at times is consistency. In the games he has performed the best, Kendricks has had limited, albeit important responsibilities. Whether it was checking Witten against the Cowboys or constantly putting pressure on Jay Cutler and Matthew Stafford, Kendricks is at his finest when he can hone in on one or two responsibilities. He was probably, regardless of which side of the ball, the team’s best player against the Cowboys and with Billy Davis preferring to simplify the roles of some of his dynamic young players (see Brandon Boykin), I would imagine he would prefer not to overload Kendricks with scheme or personnel responsibilities.
In terms of Barwin, he serves as the team’s best edge presence when it comes to defending threats from the tight end position off the line. While the ‘razor’ on the Eagles hybrid 3-4 defense is still mostly responsible for getting after the passer and assisting in the run-game, his ability to guard in space along with a knack for hitting receivers off the line, disrupting their routes. The Cowboys were successful against the Eagles with their use of quick, timing based routes that were unlike the more long-winded plays with Tony Romo at quarterback. Brees has every ability to hurt the Eagles deep, but his penchant for using passing lanes and a lightning quick release figure to be a key part of Payton and the Saints gameplan.
What the Eagles showed against Dallas, and several other teams this season, was that they are fine allowing a handful of big plays in terms of yardage. Their mindset going into contests, especially against some of the more prolific offenses, is that if they can capitalize on a few big plays as a result of execution, they can swallow the fact that the other team racked up substantial yardage. Expect nothing different when it comes to Saturday night’s game. Both in terms of defending Graham as well as New Orleans’ offense as a whole, the Eagles defense will most likely try to wear down the perceived ‘finesse’ players on the Saints when they have the ball. One of the most impressive aspects of the Eagles defense has been their ability to gang tackle as well as bring a physicality that has been painfully absent the last two seasons. Barwin is the team’s most experienced player in this defense and the team has leaned on him heavily, especially during their run of keeping opponents out of the endzone. Hitting Graham whenever the team is able to should make up a big of their approach to Graham, and considering his experience Barwin will take his licks more often than not.
The Eagles should be crossing their fingers that Ear Wolff can play a decent amount of snaps against the Saints, because Brees and Graham have the ability to exploit weak spots on even the best defenses. Graham, much like the Eagles Zach Ertz, is comfortable playing from one of the wide receiver positions. The Saints love to move players around, and when Graham can isolate a weak defender, Brees and Sean Payton are lethal in exploiting that. Between Brandon Boykin and Nate Allen, the Eagles have players that are solid in coverage and, Boykin especially, are not afraid to be physical. Considering the Saints and their extensive use of multiple (4-5 wide receiver sets), Boykin figures to play more than he has in any game this season. Billy Davis has stressed wanting to keep the young Boykin in the nickel role, rather than moving him to the outside in this just his second year.
Boykin has flourished in the role, turning in a team-high six interceptions. Along with his exploits on special teams, Boykin has had his ball skills on display in some of the highest pressure situations. He has had game-sealing interceptions against a pair of division rivals, and has also shown the ability to play one-on-one with receivers that dwarf him in size. Boykin’s world-class jumping ability has negated some of the height advantage that multiple teams have tried to exploit. His expert play on a jump ball against Dez Bryant and Dallas prevented a touchdown, and the confidence shown on the play shows just how far along the second-year pro is.
Unfortunately, Graham might have a vertical leap as impressive as Boykin and a 10-inch height advantage to boot. The former Georgia Bulldog certainly won’t be backing down from a challenge, but it will be essential to not have Boykin as the exclusive defender on Graham. When Brees is able to get into a rhythm, mostly as a result of finding a weak point in the defense, that is when he is at his best. As the team has done so well over the second-half of the season, the Eagles defense is geared toward throwing different looks at the opposition until they make a mistake. As great as Brees is, he does have 12 interceptions. The Eagles know they will have to try to capitalize on what could be a limited amount of mistakes should they want to come out on top. Brandon Boykin has had a knack for being around when those mistakes happen. Should he match up with Graham at points over the game, he will be put in a position to do so once more. Given his impressive track record in his short career, it is tough not to share the confidence of the team’s secret weapon on defense.
Finally, the Eagles will have to show the mindset they have shown almost all season on defense. This is not a unit marked by superstars or individual prowess. They have come as far as they have on the heels of cohesion and intensity. Gang-tackling and swarming to the ball have become hallmarks of Billy Davis’ group in their top performances. This approach has allowed several different players to step up in big situations, while not usurping any of the glory gained from the main black eye that marked the last two Eagles teams. They are a confident bunch that have bought in to what Davis has preached 110%. No matter how much people bring up the Saints struggles on the road in the playoffs, New Orleans poses the biggest threat the team will face this season. Jimmy Graham is like no other tight end in the game. He is just as fast as Vernon Davis, but bigger. He is just as big as Rob Gronkowski, but shows more explosiveness and speed. Most importantly, he has Drew Brees throwing him the ball and Sean Payton designing plays for him. He has the ability to take over any game and make prolific defenders look foolish.
Stopping Graham should not be the team’s focus when it comes to Saturday’s game. There are too many other threats on the Saints offense to place that much emphasis on one weapon and doing so would weaken the best attribute of the Eagles defense: their team-first approach. I am certain Billy Davis has emphasized Graham in his gameplan and expect several sets of eyes on him at all times. That being said, they know that Colston, Sproles, Kenny Stills, and anyone else the Saints want to throw out there have just as much chance to hurt them as Graham if they aren’t careful. The Eagles have the personnel to do an adequate enough job on Graham to keep him from dictating the storyline of the game. As long as the team gets physical with him, throws multiple looks in his direction, stays sound in terms of assignments, and bring him down as fast as possible when he does catch the ball, I do not expect Graham to hurt the Eagles more than any of the other elite weapons they have slowed down en route to the postseason.