We don't have access to the New England Patriots and their gameplan, but smart money is on "shut down Jimmy Graham" being one of the most significant bullet points worked on prior to their Week 6 game against the New Orleans Saints. In the end they were successful, holding Graham without a catch for the first time since his rookie season in 2010.
Graham has been so good this year that even after failing to catch a pass in Week 6, he is still the NFL's leader in receiving yards with 593. He also has six touchdowns on the year. He's the first player to really get the attention who isn't named Drew Brees when it comes to the Saints offense, and for good reason.
So if Graham has managed games of 179, 134, 100 and 135 yards this season, how did the Patriots hold him to zero? They bucked the trend of keeping their cornerbacks outside and on receivers, and put one on Graham for the entirety of the game. Rather they had a corner on Graham until he injured himself in the fourth quarter.
New England took cornerback Aqib Talib and stuck him to Graham for much of the first half. Graham saw three targets in the first half with Talib in coverage and came close to catching one of them. On the second offensive play of the game, Brees looked to Graham, who couldn't separate from Talib on a slant play, and eventually failed to make a one-handed catch.
Graham didn't see another target until the second quarter, when he looked to have secured a third-down catch but Talib was able to get his hands in and knock the ball away late. Had it been another second, Talib might have officially forced a fumble. The third and final target that went Talib's way was a forced throw from Brees that Talib was all over.
Talib ended up leaving the game, and the Patriots slotted Kyle Arrington into the job of covering Graham. Arrington is a shorter, smaller corner than Talib, and the line of thought has always been small corners and big-bodied tight ends just don't match up. However, Arrington played well on Graham, breaking up and intercepting one pass and defending two others effectively (there was one or two pretty poor throws from Brees, however).
When teams put a linebacker or a safety on Graham, they often give him too much space to work with. He's already a nightmare in press coverage, because he can often win a jump ball against anybody in the league. Giving him that extra space is just asking for Brees to throw to him. But corners appear to be the only ones that can keep up with him at this point.
Going forward, it will be interesting to see how teams approach Graham. Obviously, many will stick to putting a linebacker and a safety on him, and in some situations, that will probably end up OK. Graham will undoubtedly have a bad game here and there. But keep an eye on how whether teams commit a high-level cornerback to Graham going forward, forcing the Saints to beat them with other players.
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