Was it really just 14 months ago?
That week when the Saints were in Foxboro and one of our vogue storylines was comparing Jimmy Graham to the Patriots tight end tandem of Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez?
Great player, Graham, but his 99-catch, 1,310-yard, six-touchdown season in 2011 left him behind Gronk’s 90-catch, 1,327-yard, 18-touchdown season the year prior. And Hernandez with 79-910-7? I mean, put all three in a hat and pull one out and you have a force to be reckoned with.
The reckoning that’s come since has changed the conversation.
Hernandez no longer plays. And you can say the same thing about Gronk since last November. He’s got two catches since last November, has missed 10 games. He seems more determined to hawk egg sandwiches than to actually play in a game.
And Graham just keeps rolling on.
So far this season, he’s got 37 catches for 593 yards and six touchdowns for the 5-0 Saints.
He’s caught 14 of the last 15 balls thrown his way over the past two weeks and has 548 yards receiving in the Saints past four games. Nobody gets the ball sent his way more than Graham and that includes running backs being handed off to. Graham’s been thrown to 53 times; lead running back Pierre Thomas has carried 48 times.
Graham is averaging more than 11 yards PER TARGET. By contrast, Julio Jones, who leads the NFL in catches (41) and is second to Graham in yards (580), has been targeted 59 times. So Jones is averaging fewer than 10 yards per target.
The weak spot to the Patriots defense is covering between the numbers and on intermediate routes to the flat. Perimeter receivers have mostly been held in check by the secondary. The Patriots have been solid against the run. But the strength of the New England linebacker corps is not coverage. Tony Gonzalez shined a light on that when the Patriots played the Falcons. Gonzalez caught 12 of the 14 passes he saw for 149 yards and two touchdowns.
Sunday in Cincy, Tyler Eifert and Jermaine Gresham –- the Bengals tight ends -– caught nine of the 11 passes sent their way for 77 yards.
Dealing with Graham is going to be the Patriots’ biggest chore on Sunday when the Saints visit. And New Orleans isn’t going to be cowed by whatever the Patriots send Graham’s way because –- unless he’s doubled everywhere -– he’s got a significant physical advantage over just about every Patriots defender except, perhaps, Aqib Talib.
The Patriots could choose to send Talib at Graham. Unorthodox, maybe, but –- position be damned –- Graham demands the top cover guy. Even then, though, the Patriots linebackers will be dealing with another matchup problem in space, running back Darren Sproles. He’s been more productive in the passing game this season than wide receiver Marques Colston. Sproles has 26 catches for 308 yards out of the backfield. Colston has 23 catches for 313 yards. Both have been thrown to 31 times.
The Saints are not a wide receiver-oriented team. Like the Patriots when they had Hernandez and Gronkowski and a dangerous pass-catcher in the backfield like Danny Woodhead or Shane Vereen, they are a matchup team. The chess match between New Orleans and New England will be trying to get to Drew Brees before he finds where his most favorable coverage matchup is. Because there are going to be favorable matchups.
And Graham is the key for the Saints in terms of creating them.
Was it really just 14 months ago?