WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS, W.Va. – The play of the day at New Orleans Saints camp Saturday was provided by tight end Jimmy Graham, who outleaped safety Vinnie Sunseri, reeled in a pass with one hand from quarterback Ryan Griffin and took it to the house before dunking over the goal post (which remains legal in training camp!)
Just in case anyone forgot, it was a vintage Graham moment. And we will continue to see plenty more of them now that the Saints have locked him up with a four-year, $40 million contract.
The notion that defenses somehow “figured out” how to stop Graham last year is misplaced.
Yes, Graham was silenced by the Seattle Seahawks in the Saints’ season-ending playoff loss, thanks to frequent double-teams and some heavy attention from All-Pro safety Earl Thomas. Yes, Graham was silenced by the New England Patriots earlier in the season when they made the rare choice to shadow him with physical Pro Bowl cornerback Aqib Talib.
And yes, Graham and Saints coach Sean Payton, among others, will have to figure out ways to adjust to all the new wrinkles that they continue to see from opposing defenses.
But it’s not like either the Seahawks or the Patriots provided a blueprint that other teams can easily follow.
Both of their plans required some of the best defensive players in the league, and they required the depth to also successfully cover the rest of the Saints’ dynamic offensive weapons.
New England’s successful use of a cornerback against Graham became a hot topic during the offseason debate about whether Graham should be considered a wide receiver or tight end. But there wasn’t another team before or after the New England game that simply decided to put a cornerback on Graham and take him out of the game.
“(New England and Seattle) were two different scenarios,” Payton said. “No. 1, New England put one of their bigger best defensive backs on him. Credit Bill (Belichick). You know, Aqib is bigger than their safeties. So he was able to play effectively. …
“But each week it varies what teams are doing. We see different plans to handle him. Obviously when you sit in on a meeting Tuesday night and you’re beginning to defend a player like him, you’re gonna account for him.”
Graham said he went back and looked at the film of that Patriots game at the time but honestly couldn’t see anything he could have done differently with the way they chose to attack him with a combination of Talib’s man coverage and zone coverage behind him.
“Talking with some of the Patriots this offseason, they had a big game plan. That’s just how it is sometimes,” Graham said. “Sean and Drew [Brees], they’re so good at dissecting the game and figuring things out. When it’s not my night, it’s just not my night. We’ve got so many young receivers on this team, we’ve got (Marques) Colston, (Robert Meachem). Somebody else is going to get a ton of balls, and I know they’re going to be making plays.
“For me, my biggest (focus heading into this season) is really staying healthy. Toward the latter part of the season, it was tough. That’s what I’m focused on. I’m going to rehab every day, even though I don’t have to.”
Since Graham emerged as a threat in 2010, the Saints’ offense has been a pick-your-poison attack. If a defense wants to sell out to try and shut down Graham, the Saints will usually make them pay in other ways.
The Philadelphia Eagles, for instance, made it their clear focus to harass Graham by bumping him at the line of scrimmage and double-teaming him through each level of the defense in their wild-card playoff matchup.
And it sort of worked – Graham caught just three passes for 44 yards. But the Saints made Philly’s defense pay by running 36 times for 185 yards in that game.
The Saints also started running the ball effectively against the Patriots in that Week 6 matchup. But they waited a little too long to adjust their game plan (and Brees made a poor decision at one point to try and force the ball to Graham, throwing an interception).
“Yeah, I think it was just one of those games where offensively we weren’t very effective, especially in the first half, then got some things going in the second half,” Saints offensive coordinator Pete Carmichael said. “Obviously we’ve always been an offense where Drew’s gonna find the open guy. And give credit to New England for what they did. Obviously they did a good job of taking (Graham) away from what we want to try to accomplish.
“But like I said, our offense is not built around any one guy. We’re gonna find the open receiver, and that’s what Drew does such a great job of.”
More often than not, Graham will continue to be that open receiver.
Every team the Saints faced last year probably went into those game-planning meetings with a desire to shut down Graham. But that plan failed for most of them as Graham racked up 86 catches for 1,215 yards and 16 touchdowns.
The Carolina Panthers, for example, had one of the NFL’s best pass defenses last year. But in two critical December showdowns against Carolina, Graham combined to catch 11 passes for 131 yards and three touchdowns.
Graham has only been back on the Saints’ practice field for two days since signing his new contract. But he already stood out as Brees’ go-to guy again on several passes in team drills and 7-on-7 drills Saturday.
Get used to seeing a lot more of it this year.