METAIRIE, La. – Much was made of the success the New England Patriots had last year against New Orleans Saints tight end Jimmy Graham when they used physical cornerback Aqib Talib against Graham in press coverage.
In fact, probably too much was made of it, as few NFL teams have cornerbacks with that ability and no other teams copied the Patriots’ blueprint after that Week 6 matchup.
But one way or another – whether he’s being pressed by cornerbacks, jammed by defensive ends or harassed by linebackers – Graham knows he’ll keep seeing new wrinkles in the way teams cover him this season.
He always does.
Luckily, as Graham pointed out, the Saints have one of the game’s most innovative offensive minds in coach Sean Payton.
So they certainly talked this offseason about the possibility of seeing coverages like they saw in New England, among others.
And they’ll be ready to throw out some new wrinkles themselves.
“Sean’s great with that in the offseason. Always does something new, implements new wrinkles,” said Graham, who offered some good detail Friday on what worked for the Patriots last year.
“I wouldn’t say New England covered me with a corner. I would say they were jamming me on the line with someone who can jam well, and then playing zone behind it,” Graham explained. “When you have help over the top and then you’ve got a linebacker scraping to help and you’re getting jammed man to man, it makes the picture cloudy of what you’re supposed to do. Especially when you run a lot of routes like me and (receiver Marques) Colston, where you have a lot of options. So when teams do that, it just kind of clouds that picture up.
“But it’s something that we’ve worked on this camp, shoring up some of those things and being ready for when teams do that. And Drew [Brees] being the quarterback he is, he finds the open guy. He doesn’t key on one guy or two guys, he finds the open man.”
Graham did stress, however, that he and Brees have a great chemistry that has allowed them to have immense success even when Graham isn’t so wide open.
“I think I definitely have a chapter in his book. I’m definitely on his page … or whatever you want to call it,” Graham said when asked if they’ve built a rapport similar to the one between Brees and Colston. “He looks for me, and he understands my body language. That’s a very important thing when you’re in between the linebackers and safeties.”
Typically, Graham said he doesn’t mind when defenses go to great lengths to try and take himself or Colston out of the game – as long as the Saints win. Last season's playoff victory at Philadelphia was a perfect example, when the Eagles sold out to harass both of them, even using defensive ends to chip them at the line.
“But that means that our running game just opened up. We were smashing people in that game,” Graham said.
The Saints weren't so fortunate against the Seattle Seahawks the next week. They also put a heavy focus on stopping Graham -- with All-Pro safety Earl Thomas shadowing him often in bracket coverage. But the Seahawks' defense is deep enough that they were also able to match up against the Saints' other receivers and runners (at least until a furious fourth-quarter rally).
The good news this year is that neither the Seahawks, the Patriots nor Talib are on New Orleans' regular-season schedule.
Two other positives for Graham – he’s healthy again to start the season after battling through a torn plantar fasciitis throughout the second half of last season; and the Saints’ receivers are loaded in terms of speed.
Graham said he thinks it will be even harder for defenses to take any one element away from the Saints’ offense this year now that they’ve added dynamic rookie Brandin Cooks and gotten downfield threat Joe Morgan back from injury.
“Having Joe Morgan healthy, that’s a big deal. In my opinion, he’s one of the fastest guys that I’ve ever met,” Graham said. “And Meach [Robert Meachem]. We just have a lot of speed now that’s gonna put a lot of pressure on these safeties. So you can’t cheat coverage, and you can’t have the safeties in the box. You have to respect that speed on the outside. And that’s one of the things we had in 2011 and one of the things they had in 2009. It makes teams have to play honest.”
Graham had a monster season in 2011, when he temporarily set some all-time receiving records for a tight end before New England’s Rob Gronkowski passed him up in the final minutes. That season, Graham finished with 99 catches for 1,310 yards and 11 touchdowns.
But Graham wasn’t far off that pace last year, finishing with 86 catches for 1,215 yards and 16 touchdowns. And as CBSSports.com’s Pete Prisco pointed out in this historical film study, Graham has always caused particular nightmares for Sunday’s opponent, the Atlanta Falcons.