Tag:Jimmy Graham
Posted on: February 2, 2012 4:10 pm
 

Ward, Graham, Gonzalez unite for documentary

Follow all of CBSSports.com's Full Super Bowl Coverage (Ryan Wilson, CBSSports.com)

By Josh Katzowitz

INDIANAPOLIS -- Three of the game best receivers -- one who is a surefire Hall of Famer, one who is potential Hall of Famer and one who’s one of the best up-and-comers in the league -- sat in a conference room on the first floor of the JW Marriott on Thursday afternoon and compared stories.

Of how they grew up, of the obstacles they faced and of how they overcame those barriers to become successful athletes.

Steelers receiver Hines Ward faced racial epithets because he is half-Korean. Saints tight end Jimmy Graham faced the loneliness of living in foster homes. Falcons tight end Tony Gonzalez reminisced about the bullies that used to terrorize his childhood.

All came together to promote a documentary that will air Feb. 10 on the USA Network called “NFL Characters Unite” in which Ward, Graham, Gonzalez and Tony Dungy meet school-age kids facing the same circumstances they did when they grew up.

“We were impressed with the candor and depth the players showed,” said producer Charlie Ebersol. “The effect was profound.”

The four were introduced to children whom they could help and give advice about how to deal with their life trials, particularly since the foursome had tough times living out their own childhoods. Dungy quit his high school football team his senior year because of racial discrimination, and Gonzalez feared leaving his house because of two older kids who picked on him constantly.

“It was very personal for me,” Graham said. “The things that (his adolescent partner) went through were a lot more than I went through. His father and brother were murdered, his mother was on drugs. The people who were supposed to have been there for him and love him weren’t there.”

Ward worked with a Pittsburgh-area high school student named Carlton Dennis, who wrote a song called “City of Prayer.” Through their documentary’s producers, he was flown to Los Angeles to lay down the track in a music studio. It’s available today on iTunes and is featured in the documentary. Ward heard the full song for the first time Thursday, and he immediately pictured one image.

“I can just see the smile on his face,” Ward said. “That’s all he wanted to do.”

For more NFL news, rumors and analysis, follow @EyeOnNFL on Twitter, Like Us on Facebook, subscribe to our NFL newsletter, and while you're add it, add our RSS Feed.
Posted on: January 14, 2012 9:47 pm
Edited on: January 14, 2012 10:01 pm
 

49ers win over Saints an all-time great

An emotional Alex Smith celebrates after the 49ers win Saturday. (Getty Images)
By Will Brinson

With the ability to instantly weigh-in on sporting events in real time a big factor in entertainment consumption, it's easy to get ahead of ourselves and declare something an "instant classic." But make no mistake: that's exactly what Saturday night's 36-32 victory for San Francisco was.

"This is big for us," tight end Vernon Davis said afterward. "It's history. It's legendary."

Vernon's more right than he'll probably know for a few hours. They say history repeats itself, right? Well, watch Davis game-winning touchdown catch and then tell us whether or not it reminds you of this:



It should, because although the down, distance and time remaining were different, the situation was very much similar. No one's going to mistake Alex Smith for Joe Montana or Steve Young.

They shouldn't. But Smith deserves an immense amount of credit for leading the Niners on two career-defining drives in the final three minutes of Saturday's game.

Of course, the first one came after the drama really started. After David Akers kicked a field goal with 7:36 remaining, everyone wondered whether the Niners could come up with one more stop of Brees. They couldn't -- Brees hit the previously quiet Darren Sproles for a 44-yard touchdown and suddenly it was like the impressive 49ers defensive effort was wasted.

Smith saw that it wasn't, arching a beautiful 37-yard pass to Davis on second down and getting within Akers range. After an absurd 12-men-in-the-huddle penalty, Greg Roman called for a Smith run off the left hand that caught Gregg Williams with his pants down and resulted in the longest playoff touchdown run by a quarterback in 49ers history.

We won't get into whether or not Smith should've gone down at the five-yard line (he should've) but suffice to say, the drama only got cranked up from there. Brees hit Jimmy Graham for a 66-yard pass where Donte Whitner egged on tackling and coverage and with 1:37 left in the game, it would've been a tough task for Montana to come back, much less Smith.

But he did just that, firing a laser to Davis that the tight end took 47 yards and inside of Akers range. Jim Harbaugh apparently wasn't satisfied with overtime and after getting to the New Orleans 14, Smith spiked the ball and then slung the dart to Davis for the game-winning touchdown with nine seconds remaining.

It was a glorious, unlikely ending to one of the all-time great playoff games; a showcase of defense throughout the first 55 minutes, followed by an out-of-nowhere offensive explosion that ranks up there with just about any game we've seen in terms of having multiple drives that looked like game-winners.

For more NFL news, rumors and analysis, follow @EyeOnNFL on Twitter, Like Us on Facebook, subscribe to our NFL newsletter, and while you're add it, add our RSS Feed.
Posted on: January 14, 2012 5:19 pm
 

Saints Graham hurt, returns; Pierre Thomas out?

How will the Saints offense operate without Thomas? (Getty Images)
By Will Brinson

Jimmy Graham's one of the most important pieces for the Saints explosive offense but there's a was some concern New Orleans will could lose him but he returned to the game after suffering what appeared to be a neck/head/back injury. The same can't be said for running back Pierre Thomas, who is likely out for the rest of the day in San Francisco.

Graham landed on his neck area during the Saints opening drive after drawing a pass-interference penalty against 49ers safety Donte Whitner in the first quarter in San Francisco.  The tight end was slow to get up and helped off the field by trainers and then eventually went into the locker room.

Thomas, who was critical to the 49ers win over the Lions last week, also ran into Whitner, getting absolutely punished by the safety on 3rd and 6 inside the 49ers red zone. Thomas fumbled the ball and the 49ers recovered, which was the Saints first red-zone turnover of the season.

In worse news, Thomas, who certainly appeared to be a candidate for a concussion watch, had his helmet taken away by trainers after returning to the sideline. He was then taken to the locker room.

Thomas was on the sideline of the field, congratulating his teammates and it appears his day will be over.

There was some question about whether or not the hit on Thomas was a helmet-to-helmet hit. However, Thomas lowered his head before Whitner hit him, and he was not considered "defenseless" because he had established himself as a runner before getting tagged.

If Thomas is indeed out, the Saints will be down to just Darren Sproles and Chris Ivory as running backs. Although if the game continues to go the way the first quarter did, it's unlikely they'll need to worry about running the ball much the rest of the way.

For more NFL news, rumors and analysis, follow @EyeOnNFL on Twitter, Like Us on Facebook, subscribe to our NFL newsletter, and while you're add it, add our RSS Feed.
Posted on: January 12, 2012 6:32 pm
Edited on: January 13, 2012 8:43 am
 

Film Room: Packers vs. Giants divisional preview


Posted by Eye on Football Analyst Andy Benoit

We can only hope this game is as entertaining as the December 4th shootout, which Green Bay won on a brilliant last minute field goal drive.

Since that day the Packers have looked mortal and the Giants have grown white hot. Can Round II produce a different outcome? Here’s the breakdown.


1. Slowing the Pack’s aerial attack
The Giants used a diverse array of coverages against the Packers in the last meeting and actually had Aaron Rodgers a bit out of sorts early on. Still, even though he wasn’t as sharp as usual, Rodgers threw for 369 yards and four scores (not a bad “off day”).

New York’s two-deep safety zone looks gave Green Bay the most trouble, but the only way a defense can get away with playing zone against this offense a second time is if it sprinkles those zones with disguises and man concepts.

You can’t outsmart the Packers; you can only hope to out-execute them. Generally, that means winning press-man battles on the outside. That’s what Kansas City was able to do, though they have better press corners than New York and didn’t have to deal with Greg Jennings (out at the time with a knee).

The Packers do a great job creating one-on-one matchups for Greg Jennings through play design. In example A (left), Jennings ran his route against rookie Prince Amukamara to the outside, while Donald Drive ran down the seam. This combination eliminated the possibility of free safety Antrel Rolle helping the overmatched Amukamara, who was flagged for pass interference. In example B (right), Jennings aligned in the slot, away from the tight end and running back. Because Jennings was running an outside route from this alignment, there was no way a safety or linebacker could help cornerback Aaron Ross on this play.

Interesting side note: the Packers usually create one-on-one matchups for Jennings by lining him up as the X-receiver in a 1 x 3 set (in other words, Jennings all alone on the left side, three receivers on the right side). However, they did not throw a single pass to Jennings from this formation against the Giants in Week 13.


Without Jennings, a good secondary has a shot at stymieing this receiving corps (for not only are a Jennings-less Pack without their No. 1 receiver, but suddenly No. 2 receiver Jordy Nelson must face a No. 1 corner, No. 3 receiver Donald Driver must face a No. 2 corner and so on). With Jennings, a good secondary still isn’t enough; a defense needs help from up front.

Pressuring Rodgers is difficult with his speed. (Getty Images)

2. Pressuring Rodgers
It’s easy to say New York’s key is having its four-man pass-rush get to Rodgers. But that only matters if the pass-rush pressure equates to sacks.

In the last meeting, Jason Pierre-Paul absolutely owned backup left tackle Marshall Newhouse. Rodgers was under duress all afternoon. But all that meant was he ran around more before completing his throws. Rodgers is so athletic, so strong-armed and so good at keeping his eyes downfield that pass-rush pressure does not disrupt his rhythm, it merely alters it.

The Giants dominated the line of scrimmage last game and finished with just two sacks. Unless they get six or seven sacks (unlikely, especially with Green Bay getting Chad Clifton back), their pass-rush won’t be a difference-making factor.

3. Matching up to Finley
The Giants have shown a perplexing willingness to defend elite tight ends with linebacker Jacquian Williams this season. Against the Saints in Week 12, Williams at times defended Jimmy Graham while safety Antrel Rolle defended Darren Sproles.

The next week, Williams guarded Jermichael Finley while Rolle guarded ... James Starks. (Seriously?!) Finley wound up beating Williams’ in man coverage for 24 yards on the game-winning field goal drive and finished the day with six catches for 87 yards and a touchdown. (The damage would have been worse if he hadn’t dropped three balls.)

Will the Giants take this approach again, or will they go to their dime defense and treat Finley as a wide receiver (which they’ve also done at times against elite tight ends this season)? Going dime would allow Rolle to defend Finley, though it would also put vulnerable rookie Prince Amukamara on either Donald Driver or Jordy Nelson.

4. Giants offense
As you might surmise, the Packers offense has too many weapons for the Giants to defend. Hence, Eli Manning will be compelled to once again light up the scoreboard. As we’ve explored the past several weeks, Manning is razor sharp against the blitz. The belief here is that an attack-oriented defensive approach will not work against the eighth-year veteran.

But Green Bay isn’t built to play any other way – at least not out of their nickel package. Dom Capers’ scheme is predicated on creating one-on-one matchups for Clay Matthews by blitzing others and using Charles Woodson as a joker. This might yield yards, but it can also create interceptions (the Packers had 31 on the season, which was at least eight more than any other team).

Manning is a virtual lock for 300 yards, but if he can be coaxed into at least two picks, the Pack are a virtual lock to host the NFC Title game.

5. Unless…
The Giants control the game on the ground. This idea seemed absurd a few weeks ago, but lately New York’s front five has gelled and Ahmad Bradshaw and Brandon Jacobs have rediscovered their ability to break tackles running downhill.

The Giants spent a lot of time in base personnel last game, though primarily for passing purposes (they ran the ball just 20 times). They wanted to limit Capers’ nickel blitzes and also throw against Packers backup inside linebackers Rob Francois and D.J. Smith (who were playing for the injured Desmond Bishop and A.J. Hawk).

With the Packers back to full strength and the Giants’ passing game having significantly improved in three-receiver sets, throwing from base personnel might not be as big a factor this time round. But the ground game might be a bigger factor – especially if the Giants don’t believe the return of defensive lineman Ryan Pickett can suddenly stabilize Green Bay’s wavering run defense.

It will be fascinating to see how Giants offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride calls the game early on.

So who will win? Check our NFL expert picks for all the Divisional Round games

Follow @Andy_Benoit on Twitter or contact him at Andy.Benoit-at-NFLTouchdown.com.
Posted on: January 11, 2012 3:15 pm
Edited on: January 12, 2012 11:49 am
 

Film Room: 49ers vs. Saints divisional preview


Posted by Eye on Football Analyst Andy Benoit

The league’s No. 2 scoring offense meets the No. 2 scoring defense at Candlestick on Saturday.

Neither side has faced this tall of an order this season. Here’s the breakdown.


1. Niners inside ‘backers on Saints stars
NaVorro Bowman and Patrick Willis are the reason San Francisco had the league’s best all-around defense in 2011. Both are smart, supremely athletic and adept in traffic and space. Thus, both can play run or pass at the highest of levels, which is why neither comes off the field much.

All season long, defenses have tried to figure out not just how to stop Jimmy Graham and Darren Sproles, but how to simply line up against them. Do you use safeties on Graham and linebackers on Sproles? Vice Versa? Do you go with cornerbacks for both and risk getting run on?

The Niners might be the first team that doesn’t have to worry about personnel packages against these two, as they may put one First Team All-Pro linebacker on Graham and the other First Team All-Pro linebacker on Sproles. Whether the Niners can win those matchups is another discussion, but defensive coordinator Vic Fangio is extremely fortunate to be able to even consider it.

Instead of having his players focus on new strategies, he can have them focus on execution.

2. Handling the rest of New Orleans’ passing attack
The 49ers generally play zone out of their base defense and man when they go nickel or dime. Because Graham is like a third wide receiver, the Saints can stay predominantly in their base personnel if they’re more comfortable facing zone coverage. That should be the case Saturday, as San Fran’s cornerbacking trio of Tarell Brown and Chris Culliver outside and Carlos Rogers inside has been tremendous in man-to-man.

Those three are capable of matching up with Devery Henderson, Robert Meachem and Marques Colston – especially if safeties Donte Whitner and Dashon Goldson are providing help as free roamers over the top.

Whitner is somewhat limited in coverage (his success tends to come when linebackers are blitzing, which defines the routes quickly and makes them easier to jump). Goldson, on the other hand, is very rangy.

Both players must be careful not to overreact to the subtle fakes and body language of Drew Brees. No quarterback manipulates deep safeties better than the new single season passing yards record holder.

Pressuring Brees is critical to stopping New Orleans. (Getty Images)

3. Pressuring Brees
San Francisco is willing to blitz but often doesn’t have to, thanks to the speed of edge-rushers Aldon Smith and Ahmad Brooks. Smith works extremely well with All-Pro defensive end/tackle Justin Smith on the left side when it comes to twists and stunts. That’s something the Saints left offensive line has struggled with over the years.

This season, however, athletic left tackle Jermon Bushrod has finally polished his pass-blocking mechanics and perennial Pro Bowl guard Carl Nicks has ironed out the kinks he had in lateral pass-blocking movement. Nicks is also great at picking up Bushrod’s slack as a help-blocker.

The real key will be whether the right side of the Saints’ line can keep Brees clean. This Saints started clicking after their loss to the Rams, when Sean Payton tweaked the protections to give his tackles help with chip blocks from backs and tight ends. That’s the only way the Saints could survive the slow feet of right tackle Zach Strief.

If Ahmad Brooks draws even one true solo matchup against Strief on third-and-long, it means something has gone terribly wrong. (Or, it means the Niners will have gambled with an overload pass-rush on that side, which is plausible given that Bowman and Willis are both excellent blitzers.)

4. Niners run game against Saints D
The Niners make no bones about it: they’re going to win with Frank Gore, not Alex Smith. They’re a power-run offense – literally. Most of their offense derives from power plays, with left guard Mike Iupati pulling and fullback Bruce Miller or H-back Delanie Walker lead-blocking. The Saints have the personnel to stop this.

Former Niners tackle Aubrayo Franklin is a clogger inside and, when he shows up, veteran Shaun Rogers is a destroyer off the bench behind the generally incognito Sedrick Ellis. Also, defensive ends Will Smith and Cameron Jordan might not have dazzling sack numbers (Jordan, this year’s first round pick, recorded all of one), but both are superb at crashing inside or sliding down the line of scrimmage.

At the second level, Jonathan Vilma is regarded as the star (and rightfully so – he calls the signals and patrols sideline-to-sideline), but strong safety Roman Harper might be the deciding character on Saturday. Harper’s presence is what makes the Saints’ front seven so fast.

That will be especially important when backup running back Kendall Hunter, an underrated tempo-changer with better quickness and burst than Frank Gore, is in the game.

5. Niners big pass plays vs. Saints secondary
Jim Harbaugh is masterful at installing simple wrinkles in his offense each week that take advantage of the opponent’s greatest weakness. This week that means building a few downfield shot-plays into the passing game.

The Saints led the league in 40-plus-yard pass plays allowed during the regular season. The Niners know that if they keep extra blockers in for pass protection help (which their O-line needs, especially at tackle, where Joe Staley is very average on the left side and Anthony Davis, despite getting an embarrassingly nonsensical All-Pro vote, is very inconsistent on the right side), the Saints, with their green-dog heavy blitz packages, will bring the house:

In case you missed it, in last Saturday night’s broadcast, Cris Collinsworth did a great job explaining a green dog blitz. A green-dog blitz is when a defender in man coverage rushes the quarterback after he sees that his man has stayed in to block. Thanks to the speed and aggression of their linebackers, the Saints green-dog blitz as effectively as any team in football.

Thus, there are one-on-one matchups to be had downfield. Though San Francisco’s offense has been Gingrich-level conservative this season, downfield shots off play-action, particularly when the ball’s just inside midfield, have actually been a consistent element in their gameplans.

The Niners have to intentionally design their big plays because, other than maybe tight end Vernon Davis, they don’t have anyone who can conjure them naturally.

Michael Crabtree has great body control but “inexplosive” speed. Kyle Williams is quick out of the slot but not over the top. Ted Ginn has playmaking POTENTIAL but isn’t consistent enough to be considered an actual PLAYMAKER.

So who will win? Check our NFL expert picks for all the Divisional Round games

Follow @Andy_Benoit on Twitter or contact him at Andy.Benoit-at-NFLTouchdown.com.
Posted on: December 21, 2011 4:52 pm
 

Rodgers tops Pro Bowl voting; Tebow third AFC QB

Aaron Rodgers led the way in all Pro Bowl voting.(Getty Images)
By Will Brinson

We've wondered whether or not Tim Tebow is a Pro-Bowl candidate before this year and the answer is probably "no." But that doesn't matter when it comes to Pro-Bowl voting, where Tebow was the third-highest vote getter among AFC quarterbacks.

Aaron Rodgers, named the Associated Press Male Athlete of the Year on Wednesday, was the top vote-getter among all NFL players, pulling in 1,581,982 votes from fans. Tom Brady was second among all NFL players with 1,454,311 votes. Patriots wide receiver Wes Welker and tight end Rob Gronkowski joined Brady in the top 10, via NFL.com:

Top-10 Pro Bowl Vote Getters
Player Position Team Votes
Aaron Rodgers
QB Packers 1,581,982
Tom Brady
QB Patriots 1,454,311
Drew Brees
QB Saints 1,188,893
Calvin Johnson
WR Lions 1,180,777
Wes Welker
WR Patriots 1,133,787
LeSean McCoy
RB Eagles 962,824
Rob Gronkowski
TE Patriots 936,886
Ben Roethlisberger
QB Steelers 935,535
Adrian Peterson
RB Vikings 925,554
Mike Wallace
WR Steelers 923,073

So, yeah, breaking: the Patriots and Steelers are popular! Also popular? Tebow.

AFC Pro Bowl Leaders by Position
Offense Defense
Player Pos Team Votes Player Pos Team Votes
Tom Brady
QB Patriots 1,454,311 Andre Carter
DE Patriots 511,693
Arian Foster
RB Texans 896,804 Haloti Ngata
DT Ravens 592,603
Vonta Leach
FB Ravens 149,801 Terrell Suggs
OLB Ravens 546,851
Wes Welker
WR Patriots 1,133,787 Ray Lewis
MLB Ravens 413,222
Rob Gronkowski
TE Patriots 936,886 Darrelle Revis
CB Jets 561,986
Michael Oher
OT Ravens 327,644 Troy Polamalu
SS Steelers 230,649
Logan Mankins
G Patriots 337,844 Ed Reed
FS Ravens 198,075
Maurkice Pouncey
C Steelers 376,457 Shane Lechler
P Raiders 228,782
Sebastian Janikowski
K Raiders 244,512 Joe McKnight
KR Jets 140,926

Once again, I'll point out that the Ravens and Patriots are popular (and also good at what they do), along with the Steelers. Brendon Ayanbadejo was the leading "special teams" vote-getter, with 106,515. On the NFC side, well, I hope you like the Packers:

NFC Pro Bowl Leaders by Position
Offense Defense
Player Pos Team Votes Player Pos Team Votes
Aaron Rodgers
QB Packers 1,581,982 Jared Allen
DE Vikings 784,527
LeSean McCoy
RB Eagles 962,824 Justin Smith
DT 49ers 525,578
John Kuhn
FB Packers 322,260 DeMarcus Ware
OLB Cowboys 581,554
Calvin Johnson
WR Lions 1,180,777 Patrick Willis
MLB 49ers 581,554
Jimmy Graham
TE Saints 725,612 Charles Woodson
CB Packers 763,198
Chad Clifton
OT Packers 392,106 Roman Harper
SS Saints 147,542
T.J. Lang
G Packers 327,740 Morgan Burnett
FS Packers 223,292
Scott Wells
C Packers 436,693 Andy Lee
P 49ers 161,812
Mason Crosby
K Packers 184,665 Devin Hester
KR Bears 268,293

For the NFC, Jarrett Bush of the Packers received the most special teams votes with 134,696. (And yes, I suppose I could have kick returners on the offense side, but I'm not trying to have my tables be all uneven. Oh no I'm not.)

Naturally, none of this means any of these guys are guaranteed to make the Pro Bowl -- the fan vote only counts as one-third of the total. The players vote is worth two-thirds. But there's a good chance that many of these guys will end up in the Pro Bowl.

For more NFL news, rumors and analysis, follow @EyeOnNFL on Twitter, Like Us on Facebook, subscribe to our NFL newsletter, and while you're add it, add our RSS Feed.
Posted on: December 8, 2011 10:36 pm
 

Titans coach wants defense to put 'fear in guys'

Tennessee has to find a way to slow down New Orleans' high-scoring offense. (US PRESSWIRE)

By Ryan Wilson


The Titans are 7-5 and one game out of the playoff picture, trailing the 7-5 Bengals (Cincy beat Tennessee in Week 9).

The Titans started 3-1 the season, then went 1-3 before another 3-1 run over the last month. Their recent success has been a combination of Chris Johnson's resurgence coupled with a friendly schedule. And if they're to challenge for a wild-card spot, they'll need to continue to play well in December. They face the Saints this weekend, then it's at Indy, Jacksonville, and at Houston to wrap up the regular season.

You have to like Tennesee's chances if Johnson continues to round into form. Football Outsiders' Ben Muth, a former offensive lineman at Stanford has been impressed with the Titans' o-line play, as well as Johnson's return from obscurity.

"What sticks out most for me while watching Johnson recently is the sense of urgency in his running style that was absent in the first half of the season," Muth wrote Thursday. "Earlier this year, Johnson seemed too willing to take a very short gain and get back to the huddle to fight another day. He seemed to be waiting for that big play to come, and just trying to make do until it did. Well, big runs in the NFL aren’t just given to you. Sure, you’ll occasionally catch the defense with the perfect call and pop one untouched for forty yards, but that happens maybe four times a year. Big plays, more often than not, are the result of great downfield running or blocking, and neither of those things are provided solely by the offensive line."


Drew Brees and the New Orleans Saints will look for their fifth win in a row when they take on the Tennessee Titans at LP Field this Sunday. Join Jason Horowitz and NFL.com's Pat Kirwan for a preview of this matchup.

Since there are no guarantees that Johnson will revert to his 2010 form, Titans defensive coordinator Jerry Gray is doing his part to motivate the troops. Specifically, that means owning the middle of the field, even if it comes at a price.

“The biggest thing I think in this league is you have to start putting fear in guys from throwing the ball in the middle of the field,’’ Gray said Wednesday, according to the Tennessean's Jim Wyatt. “And if that means getting a letter from the commissioner on Monday, that means getting a letter from the commissioner."

In related news: Gray should expect a letter from the commissioner. (We're kidding because Roger Goodell, whose disciplinary worldview seems to be "no violation is too small," has a history of liberally meting out punishments. But we wouldn't be shocked if, you know, Gray got a letter.) 

“A lot of times you have to be able to let these guys know: You are not going to be able to throw the ball in the middle of the football field," Gray said. "This is not a basketball game; it is a football game. So the ball doesn’t go down the middle of our field. And that is what safeties should do in this league.”

The Titans' defensive coordinator also made it clear that he's not telling his players to violate the new safety rules the league put in place this season. And the basketball reference? That's for Saints tight end Jimmy Graham, suddenly one of the NFL's best pass catchers. He played hoops at the University of Miami before a season with the Hurricanes football team changed his career plans.

“Just do a clean hit, hit a guy clean,’’ he said. “And the good thing is, [Graham] is 6-foot-7, so you are not going to hit him in the head anyway.”

This will be a stiff test for the Titans; the Saints are one of the league's most explosive offenses. With how well the o-line line protects Drew Brees, Tennessee's best strategy might be to get physical with his intended targets. Through 13 weeks, that's been easier said than done.

"I don’t think we’ve covered a 6-foot-6, 6-foot-7 tight end, but the thing is the safety has to come down and hit him and help out (the linebackers),’’ Gray said.

When asked if the Titans have been delivering enough big hits to make would-be pass-catchers wary, Gray responded, “Of course not. They wouldn’t be throwing the ball down the middle of the field if we had been doing enough of it.”

For more NFL news, rumors and analysis, follow @EyeOnNFL on Twitter, Like Us on Facebook, subscribe to our NFL newsletter, and while you're at it, add our RSS Feed.
Posted on: December 7, 2011 12:08 pm
Edited on: December 7, 2011 12:09 pm
 

Film Room: Titans vs. Saints preview

Posted by Eye on Football Analyst Andy Benoit


While we weren’t looking, the Tennessee Titans got to 7-5 and in the thick of the AFC playoff race. This week they have a widely televised game against the New Orleans Saints. Perhaps it’s time we get to know Mike Munchak’s club.

Here are some tidbits on one of this week’s showcase games.


1. Saints O vs. Titans D: 31 flavors vs. vanilla
Sean Payton has been known to use 15 different formations on his first 15 plays. As offensive variety goes, the Saints are boundless and peerless. The Titans defense, under Jerry Gray, is the polar opposite. They’ve been the easiest unit to watch on film this season because they line up in base zones, they rarely move before the snap and it’s always clear what each player is trying to do. It’s an execution-based defense.

In this model, the Titans try to make opponents play conservatively and methodically. Instead of trying to beat the offense big once or twice and risk having the offense beat THEM big, the Titans would rather make the offense beat them small again and again, without making any bad mistakes. This formula works against middle-tier offenses – like the Broncos, Browns, Colts, Bucs and Bills, all of whom the Titans have held below 20 points. But unless an execution-based defense has a few top-level playmakers – like the Bears with Brian Urlacher or, in past years, the Colts with Dwight Freeney – it won’t hold up against upper-tier competition.

The Titans have a mobile, fairly athletic defensive line but one that’s devoid of premium pass-rushers. Their linebackers are reliable but not sideline-to-sideline players; it might even be considered a weak unit when outrageously overrated middle ‘backer Barrett Ruud is in the lineup (he’s been out most of the past month with a groin; rookie Colin McCarthy has been an upgrade in his stead). The secondary is sound but not ball-hawking.

The way to beat Drew Brees is to confuse him (which isn’t easy). He’s far too sharp as a progression-read passer for a defense to simply line up and play against. Unless luck intervenes or a few Titans defenders play the game of their lives, we’ll see Brees lead four or five ABC-123 type clock-eating scoring drives Sunday.

2. Chris Johnson
Pilloried for the destruction of fantasy teams nationwide the first 10 weeks of the season, the $30 million running back has rushed for over 100 yards in three of his last four outings. Not until these past two weeks did Johnson show his old acceleration and burst. We may never know what got him off track early in the year, but he appears to be on track now (he’ll have to stay on track a little longer before we fully trust him again).

One theory people floated was that his offensive line was struggling. That’s simply not true. It’s easy to blame the linemen because they’re big, faceless cogs in a unit. But ask yourself this commonsense question: What’s more likely? That one player (Johnson) suddenly stunk, or that FIVE players (the line) suddenly stunk? Johnson’s line wasn’t bad – Johnson was bad. He was stopping his feet to redirect, looking for holes rather than reading the movement of defenders and spinning mud when hitting the gas.

This isn’t to say that Johnson’s line has been sterling this season. Until they started consistently landing blocks on the move last week, guards Jake Scott and Leroy Harris looked very average (Scott maybe even a cut below that). Gritty veteran right tackle David Stewart has at times relied too much on grit and not enough on technique. Even steady Pro Bowl left tackle Michael Roos has struggled a bit (though more in pass-protection than run-blocking). But inconsistent means good AND bad. Until recently, the Titans line had been a tad inconsistent, while their running back had been just plain bad. We’ll see if Johnson can maintain his rhythm against a fast Saints run defense.

3. Titans O vs. Saints D: manufacturing big plays to compensate for a weakness
We’ve covered before how Saints defensive coordinator Gregg Williams dials up so many risky, complex blitzes in part because he does not have a good enough pass-rushing front four to simply line up and play. On a similar note, Titans offensive coordinator Chris Palmer has done a good job generating big pass plays this season through design.

With Kenny Britt injured, the Titans do not have any receivers who can consistently burn one-on-one coverage. Thus, instead of dictating the terms of engagement and just attacking through the air, the Titans have used route combinations in response to specific defensive looks. That’s good coaching.

Some examples that stand out: in Week 4, the Titans killed the Browns’ man coverages with a litany of natural pick plays (Nate Washington’s 57-yarder to set up a late first half touchdown being the highlight). In Week 13 they found ways to isolate Buffalo’s untested seventh-round rookie cornerback Justin Rogers with presnap motion.

In Week 3 they used a deep crossing route with unassuming tight end Craig Stevens:

The Titans knew that outside cornerback Cassius Vaughan was responsible for covering the defensive left third of field. So they sent wideout Marc Mariani on a fly route to carry Vaughan deep. That temporarily left an unoccupied void that Stevens’ crossing pattern was timed to hit. 

When Stevens caught the ball, Vaughan was out of position and facing the wrong direction. This well-timed, clever approach compensated for Stevens’ lack of speed.

This is quality stuff. It’s not necessarily sustainable – at some point, talent becomes a requirement in pro football – but it’s making the most of your resources.

4. Defending Graham
When facing the Saints, your defensive gameplan often centers around how you decide to defend Jimmy Graham. As the best receiving tight end in football, Graham, frankly, deserves a cornerback’s attention. But most teams can’t afford to sacrifice their run defense by playing a third corner on every down. So, they compromise by using a safety.

Then there are the brave teams that try to stop Graham with a linebacker (like the Giants two weeks ago, who put Jacquian Williams on Graham so that they could have one of their faster safeties defend Darren Sproles).

The Titans play a lot of zone coverage. Even a lot of their man coverages have sprinkles of zone concepts with cautious safety alignments over the top. Because of this, the Titans will likely be stuck in a few linebacker-on-Graham scenarios. Perhaps they’re comfortable with this.

In base defense, Will Witherspoon has been a savvy pass defender over the years. He’s not super savvy, though, as he comes out in nickel. Of course, that’s partly because rookie linebacker Akeem Ayers moves well in space, particularly near the inside flats. Ayers, however, is more inclined to make a tackle that merely prevents a run-after-catch, as opposed to actually breaking up a pass.

Expect Graham to get his usual touches, especially given that the zone defenders will constantly be peaking at Sproles coming out of the backfield.

5. Film Tidbits
Some miscellaneous trends for your viewing pleasure:
--when Saints safety Malcolm Jenkins creeps down into the box, it’s almost always to blitz.

--if the Titans do have one specific target they try to get the ball to, it’s tight end Jared Cook. He’s far from a go-to guy (inconsistent fundamentals, not as good a runner as his athleticism suggests), but he’s well-built and can create a mismatch once or twice a game. It usually comes when he detaches from the formation.

--The Titans like to use backup running back Javon Ringer in hurry-up offense. Ringer can catch and, more importantly, he’s a better pass-blocker than Chris Johnson. (We’ll see if Ringer’s hurry-up reps continue now that Johnson has gotten back to his normal self).

--The Saints almost always throw to the inside receiver in a given formation. It’s not often that the ball goes outside. (This tidbit came from film guru Greg Cosell, executive producer of the NFL Matchup Show.)

So who will win? Check our NFL expert picks for all Week 14 games

Follow @Andy_Benoit on Twitter or contact him at Andy.Benoit-at-NFLTouchdown.com.
 
 
 
 
The views expressed in this blog are solely those of the author and do not reflect the views of CBS Sports or CBSSports.com