Graham has owned the Falcons.
In his last seven games against the Falcons, Graham has been targeted 54 times, has 35 catches for 500 yards and seven touchdowns.
As one Falcons staffer recently said to me, "We have big matchup problems with Graham."
The Falcons will open their 2014 season trying to contain Graham as the two teams meet in Atlanta Sunday. After studying Graham's games against the Falcons, a few things stood out.
- He has killed them with double moves. Four of his seven touchdowns have come on double moves.
- The Falcons have given him a lot of free releases, which allows him to easily get into his routes.
- Graham has beaten them from the left side, the right side, out wide, in-line, you name it, and the Falcons have had little in terms of an answer for him.
Then again, who does?
Graham is arguably the best tight end in the game, and certainly the best pass-catching tight end. He is a receiver masquerading as a tight end, and his ability to create matchup problems is a big reason why the Saints are so dangerous on offense. At 6-7, 260 pounds, he is a big, fast weapon.
In 2013, Graham caught nine passes for 145 yards and two touchdowns against the Falcons. Cutting that down has to be a priority for Atlanta this week
The best the Falcons have done against Graham came in Week 13 in 2012 in Atlanta when the Falcons beat the Saints 23-13. Graham was held to four catches for 59 yards and no touchdowns. In re-watching that game, the low numbers were more a result of the pressure on Drew Brees rather than anything they did to Graham. He was actually open on a several plays, but the pressure didn't give Brees time to find him.
Let's take a look at some of Graham's success against the Falcons. The first play is one of the many double-moves that led to a touchdown. It came in Week 12 of the 2013 season.
Play: First-and-10 Atlanta 44 with 10:41 left in the second quarter.
Offense: Regular (2 backs, one tight end, 2 receivers)
Defense: (4-3-4 base) Four-man rush, Cover-3 look, drop-7
Graham (orange circle) was lined up in-line on the left side. With linebacker Joplo Bartu over him, Bartu got his hands on him a little, but let him release. When he did, he got on safetyWilliam Moore in the deep left third. As you can see, Graham ran an out and up and Moore bit big time on the out, and had no chance on the play. Corner Asante Samuel had no chance to get over and make a play.
... And here it is in full speed:
Here's another double-move for a score, this time on linebacker Stephen Nicholas in Week 10 of 2012.
Play: Second and 4 at the Atlanta 14 with 40 seconds left in the half.
Offense: (Posse) Three WR, 1 TE, 1 back -- Graham lined up in-line on the right.
Defense: Nickel -- Four-man front, quarters coverage with man under.
Graham was lined up with Nicholas on his face. At the snap, Graham ran hard up the field and Nicholas had his hands on him. But when Graham faked an out, he shook Nicholas and was able to get open in front of the safeties for an easy score when he broke the tackle of Moore at the goal line. Here's the move:
The double move won again. I will say that this was one of the few times in the tapes I watched where the Falcons put their hands on Graham at the line.
What's so great about Graham is that he can line up anywhere and win against anybody. He is too fast for linebackers, but too physical for a lot of defensive backs.
The Saints also use scheme to take advantage of his skills. Here's a look at a play from Week 10 of the 2012 season where scheme led to an easy 29-yard score for Graham.
Play: Second and 8 at the Atlanta 29 with 13:152 left in the second quarter.
Offense: Posse (three WR, one back, one TE)
Defense: 4-2-5 (Nickel blitz) with quarters coverage look.
On the play, Graham (orange circle) was lined up in the slot left inside two receivers. The Saints made it look as if it were a quick screen outside to Lance Moore with Devery Henderson blocking. But Brees pump-faked the throw, drew up Moore and Nicholas and safety Thomas DeCoud had no chance to get over. Graham was wide open up the seam for an easy score.
Here it is for your viewing pleasure:
The best way to defend Graham is to get physical with him. In studying some of his worst games, the thing I noticed was that teams who had physical, bigger secondary players had success against him. The Patriots held him without a catch in Week Six last season in large part because corner Aqib Talib was able to match up with him in man coverage. He got physical with him and his strength really played into his ability to match up.
When Graham did shake free, Talib was able to run with him and he's a tall corner at 6-2, which helped.
Here's a look at a few plays that show his physical play slowing down Graham.
Seattle also did a nice job on Graham in the playoffs last season. They held Graham to one catch for six yards. Like Talib, its defensive backs got physical with him.
The Seahawks have the big corners and the tough safeties who can match up with him and run with him. They also doubled him some as well. I will say this, there were plays where Graham was open in that game, but the pressure up front either forced Brees out or forced him to get the ball out quicker.
I think getting defensive ends and linebackers to chuck him as he gets into his routes is another way to slow him down. The Patriots did some of that with Chandler Jones last season. Even the Falcons have had some of their best plays defending him when they get their hands on him.
The problem now with the way Talib played him last year is that the league is expected to call it a lot closer in the secondary -- if the preseason is an indication. Talib probably would not have been able to get away with being so physical now.
The Falcons really don't have a big, physical corner. Could they put second-year corner Desmond Trufant, a rising star, on him? Maybe, but he's only 5-11. They did have some success in the opener in 2013 with linebacker Kroy Biermann getting physical with him, but he's coming off a torn Achilles tendon.
Moore has really struggled when matched with Graham, getting eaten alive by the double moves. New free safety Dwight Lowery has some range and is physical, but he's only 5-11.
So you see the challenge for the Falcons? They can double him, but Brees will kill them with his outside receivers if that happens, and he has more speed now than in recent years. Even so, I would take my chances with that.
Taking away Graham -- or I should say trying to take him away -- has to be priority No 1 for the Falcons.