One of the things that stood out in the Falcons two matchups against the New Orleans Saints last year was how different the two games were in regards to Saints tight end Jimmy Graham’s performances. In the first contest, a loss for the Falcons in the SuperDome, Graham was the best player on the field for the Saints passing attack, finishing with a team-leading 146 yards on 7 catches. He scored a pair of touchdowns and also caught a 46-yard pass that set up what proved to be the Saints’ game-sealing field goal. But in the second game, where the Falcons won in the Georgia Dome, Graham was marginalized. He caught only a single pass in the first half, and was held out of the endzone on a total of 4 catches for 59 yards. Those numbers are even made more impressive by the fact that over the course of the second game, Drew Brees dropped back to pass 18 more times, thus giving Graham much more opportunity to pad his stats. In the first game, Brees targeted Graham on roughly a quarter of his dropbacks (8 targets, 33 dropbacks), but that was more than halved in the second game (6 targets, 51 dropbacks).
What changed? A variety of factors could be considered for why the Falcons were much more effective at covering Graham the second time around. Part of it was venue. While Graham’s numbers home versus away the past two seasons as a starter are similar, with only minor variations in receptions and yards, he has managed to catch nearly twice as many touchdown passes at home (13) than he does on the road (7). The Falcons also got a lot more pressure on Drew Brees in the second game, which had him rattled from his five interceptions. When you’re throwing it so much to the other team, it’s hard to complete passes to your top target. But the biggest takeaway I had was how Falcons defensive coordinator Mike Nolan changed his approach for dealing with Graham.
There’s no doubt that Graham is the centerpiece of the Saints passing attack. While Marques Colston is technically their No. 1 receiver, Graham is such a difficult matchup problem due to his speed, size, and athleticism that defenses must focus the majority of their attention on him or else fear getting burned. If Nolan wasn’t aware of this fact prior to the Falcons first matchup against the Saints last year, he certainly became acquainted with that notion during the game. The Falcons appeared in the second contest to have a much more concerted effort to contain Graham.
Nolan mixed up his looks with how he dealt with Graham. The Falcons rolled a lot of their coverages to Graham in the middle of the field, with both safeties Thomas DeCoud and William Moore not being far from Graham on most snaps. DeCoud drew a number of one-on-one assignments against Graham in the first half of the game. In the second half, the Falcons switched it up by putting linebacker Stephen Nicholas on him more often than not. But either safety wasn’t far.
This sort of blanket coverage put other Falcon defenders in tougher situations as they couldn’t consistently rely on safety help. Asante Samuel left that game early with an injury, and was replaced by Chris Owens. Owens had one of his best performances in that game. Robert McClain was often matched up against Marques Colston in the slot, and handled him effectively. Sean Weatherspoon was tasked with trying to deal with the explosive Darren Sproles for much of the game, and had his share of struggles there.
But the Falcons scheme allowed for greater opportunities for Colston, Sproles, and Lance Moore to make more plays, which they did. But thanks to the pressure and turnovers, not enough to win the game for the Saints.
In the Saints offense, Graham is often flexed out rather than playing as an inline tight end. Nolan made an interesting choice on several plays using a defensive end to rub or jam Graham at the line before he could release into his route. Often this player was Jonathan Babineaux, who did so on six plays. Other times it was Kroy Biermann. This helped players like DeCoud and Nicholas, who under normal circumstances are poor matches for Graham in man coverage, since Graham couldn’t release quickly into his route.
Nolan also used a bit of zone coverage, sometimes blanketing him with three defenders to force Brees to make tight window throws.
Here’s the breakdown of 46 snaps and who was in coverage against Graham. Not included in this table is 4 times where Graham was primarily a blocker on screens.
Falcons Coverage vs. GrahamBreakdown of who covered Jimmy Graham during ATL-NO Week 13 matchup in 2012
In the first half, DeCoud drew seven of his nine coverage assignments against Graham, and Brees never targeted him. Graham’s lone reception in the first half (for 12 yards) came when Biermann was in coverage, an event that happened three times in that half. In the second half, eight of Nicholas’ ten coverage assignments came against Graham, and he was targeted 3 times for 2 catches for 22 yards. Abraham was also tasked to cover Graham more often in the second half, with three snaps in coverage against him, giving up his lone catch for 25 yards. McClain and Weatherspoon also got into the mix as the game wore on, with all of their assignments against Graham coming in the second half as well.
The attention DeCoud was paying to Graham in single coverage also seemed to help William Moore, who was only tasked with covering Graham in man coverage once. Moore struggled dealing with Graham in the first contest, and Nolan seemingly made the adjustment of limiting the times he would have to match up one-on-one with him. Although among the five instances where the Falcons used primarily zone to deal with Graham, Moore was blanketing him twice. Speaking of zone, Nicholas was in on three of the five zone assignments, with DeCoud and Biermann each with a pair of them, while Weatherspoon and McClain each got in on the action once. The instance with McClain led to one of the passes defended against Graham. McClain had outside, Moore over the top, and Nicholas inside on the blanket coverage. Brees tried to fit the ball in to Graham, and McClain made a great read on the throw to break it up.
This year with the expectation that Akeem Dent will assume a larger role in the nickel defense, he may be the one tasked with fulfilling the same role as Nicholas and covering Graham multiple times. One of the issues that Nicholas continually had in coverage last year, and is very apparent on film is how he struggles to turn and flip his hips. If/when Nicholas could keep Graham in front of him without having to turn his hips, he was okay. But when he had to turn and run, he got into trouble. Dent should be better in that area that Nicholas due to his youth and better lower body explosiveness. The key for Dent is just the mental aspects of it. He got exposed a few times on the coverage opportunities he had last season as he just seemed to a step slow reacting to things. With a year under his belt, that should no longer be an issue or at least much less of one.
Rookie Desmond Trufant may also get tested as he takes over at right cornerback. Last year’s right corner, Dunta Robinson saw a few opportunities against Graham when the Saints lined him up wide on the outside. It will be interesting to see if the Falcons ever try Umenyiora’s hand at covering Graham, similar to how Abraham was used on occasion. It’s something Osi did very rarely with the Giants, and if the Falcons intend to limit those opportunities as they did a year ago, will effect their defensive play-calling.
The Falcons utilized almost exclusively nickel when Graham was on the field in passing situations, with their base defense only showing up once in the 46 plays logged. The Falcons often used a “2-4” look which included two down linemen (typically Babineaux and Corey Peters), with Abraham and Biermann standing up on the edge like outside linebackers. Several times throughout the game, both ends lined up in the “wide-9” technique, allowing their speed to be effective against tackles Jermon Bushrod and Zach Strief. Bushrod is gone, replaced with Charles Brown. And now Osi will be likely to line up in Abraham’s stead. What was interesting about that second Saints game last year was that not on a single passing play did John Abraham ever put his hand on the ground and rush like a traditional end. He typically lined up on the right side of the defense (left side of the offense) away from Graham, who typically lines up on the right side of the Saints offense. Biermann on the opposite side did a little bit of both, although the vast majority of the time (roughly 77%) he had his hand on the ground. With a year of comfort with his scheme, it will be interesting to see if Nolan employs similar fronts or can add a few new ones to the repertoire. But the fronts will be important as getting pressure on Brees is key. Last year, both Abraham and Biermann were effective at using their speed to attack both tackles, and Corey Peters also was effective at times penetrating up the middle. Peters was much healthier for the second contest than he was for the first. And based off his play this summer, should be even better this year.