Play of the game: Saints TE uses size, athleticism to advantage
The Saints have their share of crazy formations and personnel groupings on offense, but when it comes to the red zone, it’s about as simple as it gets.
When a team has a player with the size and athleticism of Jimmy Graham, there’s no need to be tricky.
And the Saints aren’t when it comes to the red zone.
“He is one of those unique guys,” Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said. “He is a tight end. He is a big guy. He is very athletic.”
A former basketball player at Miami (Fla.), Graham is coming off a 16-touchdown season. Through 11 games, Graham has nine — eight of which came inside the red zone, including one against the Ravens last week on the trips stack TE back-shoulder fade.
It’s a play that doesn’t call for much more than Graham boxing out a defender and catching the ball.
“He utilizes his body well,” Tomlin said.
Graham leads all tight ends with 65 catches. Dating to 2011, he has the most touchdown catches among tight ends with 45, with a good number of those coming in the red zone.
This year, Graham has been targeted 18 times inside the red zone and has 11 catches. No other Saints player has more than six targets in the red zone.
The Saints use trips stack TE back-shoulder fade to take advantage of Graham’s ability to beat a defender off the line and muscle him to catch the ball.
The Saints line up three receivers to the right side with Marques Colston tight to the line and Nick Toon stacked behind him. Kenny Stills is lined up off the line of scrimmage to their right.
Graham is set to the short side of the field — in this case the left side — where he will usually draw man coverage against a cornerback.
Pierre Thomas is alongside quaterback Drew Brees, who is in the shotgun. Thomas’ main concern is to help with protection.
Brees has multiple options other than Graham, with Stills running a fade, Colston a crosser and Toon in the deep flat, but that decision will be made pre-snap.
If there is single coverage on Graham, Brees will throw the back-shoulder fade. The back-shoulder fade typically isn’t a call, rather a reaction to the throw by the quarterback.
The corner has to guard against the back-shoulder fade, the deep fade and the slant. Defenses are hesitant to roll a safety to that side because the threat of a run play.
The Saints usually like to use Graham on the right side in the red zone. Eleven of his targets have to come to the right, and only four have been to the left.
The Saints also can run the play out of an empty set, or with the jumbo package of no receivers.
Whatever they do, it’s all in an effort to get the ball to Graham.