Having a plan for Saints TE Jimmy Graham will be key for Lions

Posted Jan 6, 2012

Saints tight end Jimmy Graham, in a lot of ways, is like Lions receiver Calvin Johnson.

Every time either one of them steps on a football field; they are a match-up nightmare for the defense.

“He’s 6’6”, he’s a former basketball player, he’s got a big wingspan, and probably a lot of things that people say about Calvin, you see the same things (with Graham),” said Lions coach Jim Schwartz.

Graham has been quarterback Drew Brees’ favorite target all season and that was the case in the first meeting against the Lions, also.

Graham had eight catches for 89 yards with six of those grabs counting for first downs against the Lions.

Lions defensive coordinator Gunther Cunningham has had a week to scheme against Graham, and the plan he puts together is one of the keys to Saturday’s game for the Lions.

“If you look at the first half of the game we played (the first game against the Saints in December), we limited a lot of things and then we got beat up,” Cunningham said of holding Graham to two catches in the first half but then six in the second half.

“We just got to be on point with him, so to speak, and we have got coverage adjustments that we are going to use and some other things they might be surprised about. We will leave it at that.”

Cunningham better have a good strategy for Graham or it could be a long night for the Lions defense.

Graham set a Saints franchise record with 99 receptions for 1,310 yards (13.2 avg.) and 11 touchdowns this season. He was the first tight end in NFL history with at least 95 catches, 1,200 yards and 10 touchdowns.

“Graham is really the prototype tight end you are probably going to see in the next ten years,” Cunningham said “He is exceptional. He is a great player.”

The Lions didn’t have much luck trying to cover him one-on-one with a safety or a linebacker the first time around.

What makes him especially difficult to scheme against is how much the Saints turn to him on third down. He had 22 third-down catches this season and 77 of his 99 receptions resulted in a first down.

With Graham, receiver Marques Colston and running back Darren Sproles combining for 70 first-down receptions on third down, it’s no surprise the Saints converted an exceedingly high 57 percent of their third-down tries this season.

“We allowed them to keep drives alive on third down and Jimmy Graham was a big, big part of that,” Schwartz said.

The Lions have been a good third-down team all season and currently rank third in the NFL, allowing opponents to convert on third down 33 percent of the time.

Getting the Saints offense off the field on third down and giving the football to Matthew Stafford and the offense will be key for a Lions upset.

Having a good plan for Graham is a good start.