TEMPE, Ariz. -- When it comes to covering tight ends, these aren't the same old Arizona Cardinals.
But the Cardinals have steadily improved their strategy -- and personnel -- to defend tight ends. Those improvements will be put to the test Sunday night against the Seattle Seahawks, who are slowly learning how to integrate Graham, whom they traded for this past offseason, into their offense.
Arizona has started to neutralize tight ends in coach Bruce Arians' three seasons. In 2013, tight ends accounted for 20.4 percent of the receptions, 23.6 percent of the receiving yards and 44.8 percent of the receiving touchdowns Arizona allowed. Those numbers declined in 2014 to 16.2 percent of receptions, 18.8 percent of receiving yards and 27.2 percent of receiving touchdowns.
This season, however, Arizona has focused even more on tight ends. Through eight games, they’ve accounted for 15.9 percent of catches, 13.1 percent of receiving yards and 7.6 percent of receiving touchdowns the Cardinals have allowed.
“I don’t know if there’s been one key,” defensive coordinator James Bettcher said. “We came out of last season and said, ‘Here’s something we know we have to improve on,’ and our guys have bought into that.”
Even though Arians said tight ends have been hurting the Cardinals on bootlegs this season, Arizona has the personnel to combat the position.
“Not to discredit any of the guys that we had over the last year -- I think we’re just a little bit more athletic at that position,” cornerback Patrick Peterson said.
One reason is safety Tony Jefferson. He bulked up this offseason with the implicit goal of defending tight ends better. He spent time developing better techniques against the taller, heavier players. Being stronger has helped Jefferson absorb initial contact from tight ends.
Another reason is Deone Bucannon. A safety-turned-inside linebacker, Bucannon plays in the box, which, coupled with his athleticism, allows him to cover tight ends earlier off the line of scrimmage. Having Bucannon in the box gives the rest of the secondary the peace of mind that tight ends can be covered this season.
“He can run with tight ends,” Peterson said of Bucannon. “He’s a little more mobile. I think now that we’re a little more athletic on the inside to where we don’t have to have those worries anymore being a step behind, or not having a guy that can cover tight ends because Deone is a transfer safety that can go down and play man-to-man coverage.”
Regardless of Graham’s early numbers, the Cardinals know firsthand what kind of threat he can be, especially in the red zone, where he has the third-most touchdown catches (30) among tight ends since entering the league in 2010.
He has 38 catches for 450 yards and two touchdowns this season, a stat line that Arizona expects to improve during the back half of the season which begins Sunday night.
“I think it took a while for him to find his role, but he’s starting to catch a lot of balls,” Arians said.
Graham has been used primarily on first down (17 catches), with 10 grabs each on second and third downs. Bettcher has seen Graham get more comfortable in the last few games, during which he’s had 17 catches for 246 yards -- more than half his season total.
With an extra week to prepare for Arizona and continue to integrate Graham into the offense, the Cardinals are prepared for more Jimmy Graham. And this year, they’re ready to handle it.