Jimmy Graham leads the NFL in receiving yards after five games, with 593 yards and 6 touchdowns. He surpassed the now-injured Julio Jones this week to take over that top spot. He is tied for 13th most receiving yards through the first five games since 1960, and is now easily the most for a tight end to open a season. (Ben Coates in 1994 is 2nd, with 529 yards).
He is a tight end. He splits out wide. He lines up in the slot. He, sometimes, comes out of the backfield. He is big, and fast, and a matchup nightmare. His official line this week was 10 catches for 135 yards, with no touchdowns. It was the fourth straight game with at least 100 yards, though he did not score. It is the first time all year he was kept out of the end zone. However, he was an integral part of creating scoring opportunities in this game, and as we will see, played a role in a sweet touchdown play, by his mere presence.
I went through the first half of this week’s game against the Bears (Graham had 7 catches, and the Saints scored 20 of the 26 points in the first half, plus, I was full of material already). Let’s break down by actually showing a few plays he did not get targeted by Drew Brees, before going to some catches.
This is the first pass of game. Graham actually lined up at right fullback in a full house, then motioned to the left. You might recognize this as the “Y-Sail” combination, where Graham is the “Y” receiver (Graham will be in Yellow Circle). The outside receiver is going deep, Graham is cutting out. Jed Collins, the fullback, has come into the flat (circled in Black). The attention that Graham dictates is obvious, as the outside linebacker is dropped deep. Brees takes the short easy play to Collins, who has plenty of space to pick up the initial first down.
Graham had some short catches, a slant where he was lined up in a true outside receiver position, another where he lined up outside, motioned toward the middle, then ran a short out back the same direction for the first down. This next play is the first where he would line up at a traditional tight end position on a passing play, with his hand on the ground. He released off the line and ran to the corner of the end zone. The coverage is pretty good, though we have seen Graham make this play and defeat better coverage. I’ve circled Chris Conte, the Bears free safety, because he is flying to the outside and has left the middle. Conte is probably not going to make a play on Graham, but the real design is to pull the defense with Graham and throw back. Jed Collins is again circled.
The throw goes to Collins at the back of the end zone. Brees is under pressure and doesn’t get the best throw off, and Collins is not Calvin Johnson, Dez Bryant, or Jimmy Graham, and it is just out of his reach. It is another example of how Graham influenced the coverage and the eyes of the secondary defenders.
Now, let’s get to the first big gain for Graham for the day, it comes against a Cover-2 deep shell, when many quarterbacks would go to a run with numbers. Graham is lined up in a tight end position. Playing linebacker is hard when you have Jimmy Graham running past you while there is a huge hole in front. Here, the Saints fake a draw to Pierre Thomas, and Lance Briggs has to play it as the only defender in that gaping hole. That gives Graham the space he needs.
I don’t think I even need to circle Graham on this one for you. Here’s the shot as Brees releases the pass. Drew Brees is a really good quarterback so he doesn’t need players to be this open, particularly a guy leading the league in receiving yards. I think you and I could hit that throw.
This was the Jimmy Graham drive, as the Saints got their first touchdown after kicking two field goals early with his two biggest gains of the day. After getting them to midfield with the catch above, Graham just shows off his ridiculous skill and athleticism here. Again, he is lined up at tight end, this time to the left side, with Major Wright in man coverage. It’s the little things here, but (a) he gets ahead of and inside Wright early, so then he can lean on Wright leading him to the outside, then (b) he gives a subtle swim move to create separation and turn it back upfield, where he wanted to go all along. This play is not open for most quarterbacks and receiver combos. Brees fits it just beyond Wright and before Conte gets over.
The Saints had one final drive, up 13-7, in the first half. Jimmy Graham’s name did not go in the score sheet, but he was again an integral part of the scoring opportunities and was public enemy number one for the Bears defense.
The next play will be thrown to Robert Meachem (legs are circled in black) deep across the field toward the left side of the end zone. Graham is drawing plenty of attention, and is covered. Major Wright is starting to turn as Brees is letting this fly, but this ball will beat him by about five yards directly over his head. Lance Briggs appears to be studying Graham intently, in case he cuts back to the middle. Wright cannot get underneath the deep throw because he is watching Graham. This one falls incomplete–Chris Conte should have probably been called for interference as he grabbed Meachem’s arm and the ball fell just out of reach.
Finally, the last touchdown of the first half, and it is a thing of beauty. Let’s set the scenario with this. Sean Payton went on 4th and 1 at the 26, then used his last timeout. How many coaches would have just let the clock run, called timeout with 3 seconds left and kicked the 44 yard field goal? The Saints ran the ball, picked up the first, used the last timeout.
Then, they ran a screen from 25 yards out with no timeouts left and 32 seconds remaining. Sean Payton came up with a play call here that not many would do. Bears read it, Thomas gets tackled in bounds, and you have to spike it and probably have 10-15 seconds left.
The play call, though, was perfect for the situation, as the Bears blitzed off the other side. The final element–the reason it went all the way for a touchdown, was just how much attention Jimmy Graham drew. Graham is lined up on the end of the line left, and will release inside and drag across the middle. The draw will come back to the side abandoned by Graham. Only two defenders would have had a chance to slow it, Shea McClellin and Lance Briggs. As we will see, they are “blocked” by Graham. Let’s be honest. Jimmy Graham is not going to hurt you on a shallow drag in this time/distance situation. He still played a part.
Here’s the shot as the screen pass is released. Briggs and McClellin have Graham blanketed. Unfortunately, that leaves the entire left side of the field open, except for one corner (Major Wright, the strong safety, also dropped toward the middle of the field).
Finally, the all-22 right after the screen pass is caught. There are lineman playing rock, paper, scissors over who gets to block the cornerback on that side. Pierre Thomas scores, and it’s 20-7 New Orleans on the way to 5-0.
Jimmy Graham is going to try to surpass Rob Gronkowski from just a few years ago for most receiving yards in a season by a tight end. Beyond just the yards, he is also doing what few tight ends do, influence coverages all over the field. On a day when we saw Tom Brady struggle mightily as he awaits Gronkowski’s return, Graham was driving the Saints to another win.