We're not getting a matchup between two unbeaten teams when the New Orleans Saints invade the Windy City to take on the Chicago Bears, but it will feature two of the NFL's best. New Orleans sports the unblemished mark of 4-0, and Chicago is 3-1, coming off a loss to the Detroit Lions.
For years, the Saints have been defined by quarterback Drew Brees, with his targets consistently overshadowed. It was always Brees throwing to "his receivers," with Marques Colston receiving the lion's share of what little attention went to the under-appreciated group. But for the last two seasons and the first four games of this season, the spotlight is finally shining on one of his receivers. Rather, the focus is on one of his tight ends: Jimmy Graham.
Graham is the headliner on that New Orleans offense. Part of that might have to do with Brees being the headline for so long, but it's quickly went from "how do we stop Brees" to "how do we take away Graham?" The latter is a question that few have been able to reliably answer.
The Bears have something of an underrated secondary, but they will have their work cut out for them, to be sure. It's not as simple as having, say, a good cover inside linebacker that you can put on the tight end with occasional safety help. Going that route is guaranteeing Graham another healthy chunk of yardage and a couple more touchdowns.
Chicago will have to do much more than that, and we're going to talk about it below. But first, we're going to take another look at Graham and what he's been able to do thus far.
Tools at his disposal
Graham is 6'7 and roughly 265 pounds, and were it not for a single year of college football at the University of Miami, he might have put his natural gifts to work in another sport. Graham played four years of college basketball and played a season of football while taking graduate classes a year after graduating in 2009.
On the basketball court, Graham didn't fit nearly as well as he does on the football field. He was in-between positions and required shuffling from his coaches. But his size and skillset is perfect for a tight end, especially the way we view the position today.
Praise from scouts and those with an eye for sleeper talent was immediate: this guy was an athletic freak for the tight end position, and somebody should absolutely take a chance on him. Despite finishing his college career with just 17 receptions for 213 yards and five touchdowns, Graham was taken by the Saints in the third round of the 2010 NFL Draft.
Graham put up a 4.53 40-yard dash at the NFL Combine, managed a 38.5-inch vertical jump, and a 10 foot broad jump. He was immediately recognized as a matchup nightmare and especially effective as a threat in the red zone. Graham was always going to win the jump ball given a well-placed throw and he happened to be playing for one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL.
What he's done
Graham managed to catch 31 passes for 356 yards in his rookie season. What was more important was the five touchdowns he managed to snare. Things got out of control in 2011, though, as he managed 99 receptions for 1,310 yards and 11 touchdowns. It might have been a bigger deal if Rob Gronkowski hadn't decided that the touchdown receptions record needed to be absolutely obliterated.
Last season, he had 85 receptions for 892 yards and nine touchdowns. He has become one of very few tight ends who primarily draw coverage from defensive backs for the majority of games, as opposed to a linebacker. He's often double teamed, be it by two corners or a corner with safety help. Colston is an excellent receiver, but Graham draws the serious coverage.
But that hasn't really made a difference this season. Through just four games, he already has 27 receptions for 458 yards and six touchdowns. He's on pace for over 20 touchdowns ... which obviously isn't likely, because a team will eventually stop him for a game or two.
Graham looks so much better this season because he's much more than a red zone threat these days. He's catching more and more passes between the 20s on the field, and he's becoming more and more of a third-down option. Going to Graham when you need a catch is the smart play, and it's because he's becoming a a much smarter player.
He's getting better at running routes and fooling defenders. That's what's always scary about someone like him: he just started playing football in 2009 and couldn't have possibly peaked yet. Graham is second in the NFL in receiving yardage, No. 15 in average yards per reception (17.0), tied for first in touchdowns (6), tied for second in catches of 20-plus yards (8), and No. 2 in the league with 114.5 average yards per game.
So that's it then, yeah? The Saints will win, and the Bears should just sit back and let it happen because it's impossible to defend Graham, right? Well, no, that's not right. The Bears established themselves early as a team to watch out for on the back of their defense last season. The biggest thing they did so well was create turnovers. It didn't matter what team they faced, they consistently created turnovers.
Last season, the Bears finished with the No. 8 pass defense in the league, but finished first in interceptions with 24. A good chunk of those picks came early in the season before Lovie Smith lost his team and they fell apart late. They also managed a whopping 29 forced fumbles on the season and had the second-highest turnover differential in the league at +20. Chicago had a whopping eight interceptions returned for touchdowns last season.
This season, their differential is at +7. They're doing pretty well for themselves, with six interceptions and 12 forced fumbles. They're not quite on pace with last season, but they still hold that "opportunistic" label in hand.
Unfortunately, Chicago's defense has given up decent yardage through the air this season. They rank No. 23 in the NFL, allowing 277.8 passing yards per game on average. But how have they been against tight ends specifically? Well, they've allowed a total of 299 yards off of 28 receptions for tight ends thus far. That number drops to 178 yards off of 18 receptions if you only count starting tight ends.
In addition to that, they have only allowed one touchdown to a tight end this season, a 20-yard pass from Christian Ponder to Kyle Rudolph in Week 2. Brandon Pettigrew had the best game against them, catching seven passes for 54 yards. Detroit won that game in a shootout, but that was more due to Detroit's insane rushing attack than any effort from Pettigrew.
How will they match up with Graham?
All of the top tight ends Chicago has faced have one thing in common. Kyle Rudolph, Tyler Eifert, Heath Miller and Brandon Pettigrew are all ... not Jimmy Graham.
Graham is faster than those others players, has more range than those other players and certainly won't be defended by a linebacker. The Bears have an aging defense, and their inability to get a handle on Reggie Bush in Week 4 is telling. Bush looked like he had a firm grasp on breaking the laws of physics and slowing down everyone around him. Graham isn't as agile as Bush, but leaving Graham uncovered for even a second would be a mistake.
Chicago needs to put their top corner on Graham, and it wouldn't hurt to try and jam him at the line. Even the biggest tight ends are capable of being jammed, and Graham is no exception. Slow Graham down as much as possible in those first five yards, and don't give him a chance to get a step on a defender. If the Bears give him any time open, Brees will find him.
Complicating things, the Saints have a pretty good idea of what they need to do after watching the Detroit game: spread things out to stretch the secondary thin, make Darren Sproles cause havoc from sideline to sideline, and force the Bears to give Graham a favorable matchup.
Obviously, the Bears can't sit in the nickel all game like they did against Detroit. They also can't blitz as much as they have this season, because that will create a good matchup for Graham. But then again, they can't forsake the blitz as Brees with time on his hands is as good as any quarterback to ever play the game. It's a catch-22.
Deciding who will even cover Graham is difficult. They obviously need multiple people in on it, but there needs to be one persistent player to stick to him. Charles Tillman is the best corner the Bears have, but Zack Bowman is bigger and might fare better if the Bears are in the nickel. Tillman has also been banged up this year, and getting physical with a guy like Graham can't be good for his longevity over the course of a season.
Safety Chris Conte will almost assuredly see his fair share of Graham in this one. He's big and he's not easily fooled, which is incredibly important. Brees is notorious for his ability to deceive safeties at the next level with his eyes, so Conte needs to put his head down and stick to Graham and not fall for that particular trap.
The absolute most important thing for Chicago is simple: do not let the Saints dictate the matchups. Running zone or keeping specific players to specific sides of the field will simply result in Sean Payton moving Graham to the other side to get the favorable matchup. In Payton's mind and certainly in Graham's mind, he only needs to get the matchup once.