By Adam Hoge-
HALAS HALL (CBS) Asked point-blank Wednesday how one goes about stopping Jimmy Graham, Bears defensive coordinator Mel Tucker responded:
“How much time do you have?”
Time might not be something Tucker has enough of this week as he prepares to stop the dynamic New Orleans Saints tight end, who happens to be the NFL’s second-leading receiver.
“He’s a huge challenge, he’s a mismatch nightmare,” Tucker said. “He runs like a fast wide receiver, he’s got an excellent catch radius, he’s a fierce competitor, his quarterback looks for him, and he feels like every ball that’s thrown to him he should catch it.”
Asked what was going through his head Monday night as he watched Graham catch four passes for 100 yards and two touchdowns against the Dolphins, Bears head coach Marc Trestman said:
“He’s hard to stop. He’s got the size. He’s got speed. There are matchup issues, obviously, defensively.”
The Bears say they have a game-plan to slow down Graham, but they’re not trying to pretend it will be easy.
“You don’t have a linebacker tall enough to cover him. You don’t have a defensive back tall enough to cover him,” Trestman said. “So he presents a lot of the challenges that (Saints head coach Sean Payton and offensive coordinator Pete Carmichael) are able to do with him each and every week, putting him outside. And not only that but forcing teams to make decisions, whether they’re going to be in nickel or regular personnel when he’s in the game with two backs and so forth.”
And that’s where the Bears’ game-plan starts. What defensive personnel do they use this week against the Saints?
The Bears were in nickel on 44 of 67 defensive snaps against the Lions Sunday, with mixed results. Not only did Reggie Bush gash the defense for 139 rushing yards, but Lions tight end Brandon Pettigrew caught seven passes for 54 yards and tight end Tony Scheffler added a catch for 22-yards.
Scheffler’s catch was one of 21 passing plays of 20 or more yards that the Bears have allowed this season, which isn’t exactly a good trend with Graham coming to Soldier Field. Graham leads all tight ends with six targets of 20 or more yards and he’s caught four of those targets for 155 yards and three touchdowns.
From a stat-tracking standpoint, 20-yards is what the Bears consider a “big passing play” so the fact that Graham is averaging 38.75 yards per catch on his targets of 20 or more yards has to be unsettling.
So what do you do? Do you play nickel or base? Do you put Charles Tillman on Graham? Do you use Zack Bowman as your nickel cornerback because he’s bigger? Can linebacker James Anderson stay on him? Is zone or man-coverage better?
“I think we’ll definitely mix it up,” safety Chris Conte said. “But when you have him man-to-man, you just have to be aware that they want to get the ball to him.”
The Saints always want to get the ball to Graham. That’s why he leads all NFL tight ends with 41 targets and is second with 27 catches. That’s the exact same amount of targets and catches Bears wide receiver Brandon Marshall has. The difference is Graham has six touchdowns while Marshall has two.
“It’s gonna take a whole team effort — the corners, the safeties, d-line, linebackers,” cornerback Tim Jennings said. “Everybody’s gonna have to get there and make the throw a little tougher and try to be able to contain a big-play wide receiver like him.”
Jennings is probably on to the best defense of Jimmy Graham: prevent him from getting targeted in the first place. The problem is, the Bears’ defensive line has struggled to get to the quarterback so far this season. The Saints offensive line has allowed eight sacks through four games, but their line still ranks in the Top 10 of Pro Football Focus’ pass block efficiency ratings.
And if Drew Brees has time to throw the ball, watch out. He has a special ability to move the safeties with his eyes to get his weapons open.
“It’s just taking care of our responsibility on every play,” Conte said. “Just make sure we play with great depth and discipline and we don’t let them fool us with pump fakes or looking us off. I think really we just have to protect ourselves, keep everything in front of us and give ourselves a chance to create turnovers, which we really live off of to help us win games.”
That was essentially their game plan against the Lions last week, but it didn’t work because the Bears didn’t tackle well. For the most part, they kept everything in front of them, until they missed the tackle and let Reggie Bush behind them.
They have a similar challenge this week with running back Darren Sproles and wide receiver Marques Colston, but Graham is a game-changer because of how they use him.
“Whether he’s in a core or split out in the slot or the No. 1 receiver out wide, he’s everywhere,” Tucker said. “And they do a great job with formations, just in general in their scheme.”
“I think they’ll do a lot of shifts and motions and different things to get their favorable matchups,” Conte added. “So it’s going to be something as a defense we have to be prepared for because you don’t know what kind of coverage that they are going to exploit and try to get him one-on-one with a linebacker or someone.”
And that’s part of the problem. The Saints are usually the one dictating which player is defending Graham and it’s usually a guy they want to be covering Graham.
From there, you’re in trouble.
“I think he can be covered and they’ll still throw him the ball and he’ll make an exceptional catch so you just have to be aware of that guy,” Conte said. “He’s a great athlete and you just have to go up and do everything you can and not let him catch the ball.”
“It’s a huge challenge for us,” Tucker admitted.
“He’s a force no doubt about it,” Trestman said.
And that’s all an understatement.
Adam Hoge covers the Bears for CBSChicago.com and is a frequent contributor to 670 The Score. Follow him on Twitter at @AdamHoge.