Tight end Jimmy Graham was still playing at Miami (Fla.) the last time the Patriots and Saints met, but he’s been a key contributor in his time with New Orleans, especially this season.
Considering how heavily the Patriots’ last two opponents have relied on tight ends, it figures to be an area the Saints will look to exploit during Sunday’s game at Gillette Stadium.
Through five games (all wins), Graham has caught 37 passes for 593 yards (16.0-yard average) and six touchdowns. He’s on pace to set career highs in all of those categories.
“Jimmy Graham and [quarterback] Drew [Brees] have a real timing and relationship there, he does a great job of finding open areas, whether it’s in zone coverage or working away from leverage in man coverage,” Matt Patricia, the Patriots defensive coordinator, said Tuesday during the weekly coaches’ teleconference. “He’s a big target for Brees to throw the ball to, he’s got a big catch radius. He’s just a big-bodied person that gives you a difficult matchup.
“There’s obviously a good trust relationship there that they’re going to be in the right spot and be on the same page.”
Two games ago, Atlanta tight end Tony Gonzalez caught 12 passes for a career-high 149 yards and two touchdowns against the Patriots. In New England’s game Sunday at Cincinnati, the Bengals completed nine passes to their tight ends: five to Tyler Eifert, four to Jermaine Gresham.
Graham doesn’t have the longevity and experience of Gonzalez, but he’ll bring a versatile repertoire to Gillette Stadium. He’s also on quite a hot streak: Graham has gone four straight games with at least 100 receiving yards, topped by a 179-yard effort in Week 2 against the Buccaneers.
“Graham’s a very good receiving tight end,” Patriots coach Bill Belichick said. “They split him out, they keep him kind of in the traditional tight end positions, but he’s a vertical receiver that can get down the field. He’s also got good quickness in the intermediate areas, tough to handle on third down.”
With players being given the day off, Tuesday’s Patriots access was limited to the weekly teleconference with Belichick, Patricia, and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels. While a few of the questions had to do with Sunday’s 13-6 loss at Cincinnati, many more were focused on the team visiting Gillette Stadium this week.
The Saints are 5-0, one of only three NFL teams still without a loss (the Broncos and Chiefs are the others). Led by Brees, the Saints are fourth in the league in yards, second in passing yards, and ninth in scoring. But they’ve also been solid on defense under first-year coordinator Rob Ryan. None of their foes scored more than 18 points.
“They’re pretty impressive, they do a lot of things well,” Belichick said. “Very aggressive offensive attack, and defensively they do a good job as well; they have good personnel and a good scheme. You can see why they’ve won five games.”
The teams haven’t faced each other since Nov. 30, 2009, a “Monday Night Football” game from the Superdome that saw the Patriots get manhandled, 38-17. Brees threw for 371 yards and five touchdowns in that game, completing 18 of 23. He’s got a new batch of skill players now.
“It’s another team that we don’t know very well, so we’ve got to make up some ground on them preparation-wise this week,” Belichick said. “That’s all part of the challenge.”
With Brees, Graham, running back Darren Sproles, and receiver Marques Colston, the Saints are mostly known for their electric offense. But Belichick already has seen an improvement under defensive coordinator Ryan, who came over after two seasons in a similar role with the Cowboys.
“I’d say last year they were a really heavy blitz, zone team and they gave up a lot of big plays, gave up a lot of yards,” Belichick said. “I would say this year under Rob, they haven’t given up very many big plays.”
Last season, when coach Sean Payton was serving a one-year suspension for the bounty scandal, the Saints allowed more yards than any team in NFL history. Opponents piled up 7,042 yards, an average of 440.1 yards per game, as the Saints finished 7-9.
Gone is defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo, replaced by Ryan. Through five games, the Saints defense has improved by more than 100 yards, allowing just 330.4 per game. By comparison, the Patriots, who by most accounts have played well on defense so far, are giving up 345 yards per game.