Chris Graythen - Getty Images
The past few years the Packers have struggled to cover faster tight ends like the Saints' Graham. Can D.J. Smith and the improved Packers defense shut down this budding star?
For a long time the Packers and the Saints have been cutting their way through defenses by having more playmakers on offense then what the opponent has had in the secondary. Since each team has just had more weapons they could find the right mismatch and exploit it, and guys like Jimmy Graham are walking mismatches. The big, fast, receiving tight end has been the en vogue position in the NFL the last few years, and Jimmy Graham has been one of the big faces behind this transition. Team love to use guys like him because he can block and catch. He is faster than most linebackers and taller than most safeties. If the team compensates by moving a corner to cover him then they can run that direction and watch as he manhandles the smaller opponent in run support.
This year Graham is off to a bit of a slow start like much of the Saint offense. Right now he only has 17 receptions for 172 yards and 3 TDs through three games. Not exactly year he had in 2011.
Despite this slow start the Packers will need to figure out a way to shut him down lest they awake the sleeping giant that is the Saint offense. The principle player responsible for this is going to be D.J. Smith (unless we expect A.J. Hawk to cover him which I don’t have a great feeling about no matter how improve he has been the last two weeks). Like Hawk, Smith has improved his game over the last two weeks. He plays fast and aggressive, moving to the ball and making tackles. There are two problems that the Packers have with this particular match up: 1.) Smith is giving eight inches to Graham when he is covering him one on one, and 2.) Smith has looked shaky in coverage so far this year. Covering a target like Graham is going to be an excellent test for Smith to see how far he has come with this technique and instincts.
The good news for the Packers is that there has been an upgrade at Safety since they last faced a match up challenge like this in week one. This upgrade is Jerron McMillian at safety. McMillian has shown an ability to cover one on one as well as playing the deep zones that safeties are typically responsible for. When he is placed in coverage McMillian has also shown an ability to get his hands on the ball with one interception and two or three near picks as well. McMillian has also shown that same aggressive tendency in his tackling, helping get guys to the ground in the open field. If Smith does need help covering Graham McMillian is an excellent option to send to his aid.
The other option that can be used is shifting Charles Woodson to cover Graham one on one. Woodson is strong enough in run support to be able to get free of a Graham block, and still has enough speed and man on man coverage skills to move with Graham in the running game. Look for this to be the match up mixed with Smith covering Graham if the Pack stick in their 2-4-5 nickel set through most of the game.
If the Packers can manage Graham than it can go a long way to shutting down the still powerful Saint offense. Last year Graham proved to be the Saints’ secret weapon both against the Packers and throughout the year. But this year the Packers defense looks to be improved and a better complement to the still potent Packer offense. The match ups against Graham should prove to be a good test for how far this defense has really come.