AFC East: Jimmy Graham

Halftime Report: Jets 20, Saints 14

November, 3, 2013
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EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- One quarterback has thrown two interceptions, but it wasn’t Geno Smith. The New York Jets' rookie quarterback ran the ball in with 37 second left in the first half, giving the Jets a 20-14 lead against the visiting New Orleans Saints and veteran quarterback Drew Brees.

A few of the main points:

Ivory breaks through: Chris Ivory wasn’t happy with how the Saints used him last season, and the running back had the kind of half that justifies that feeling. Ivory scored the first touchdown for the Jets with 2:39 left in the half, and had 93 yards on 10 carries. Ivory looks like he tried to spike the ball afterwards, but just ended up hitting the wall behind the end zone. But he’d already made his statement.

Stopping Graham: The Jets haven’t been able to handle 6-foot-7, 265-pound tight end Jimmy Graham. He dragged Jets safety Jaiquawn Jarrett into the end zone with him the first time he scored, and beat Antonio Cromartie off the line for his second touchdown catch. The Jets used every defensive back they have and a few linebackers to try to contain Graham, who has 72 yards on 4 catches in addition to the touchdowns.

Missing pieces: Two missing players are likely affecting their team’s bottom line on offense. Jets receiver Jeremy Kerley left the game with an elbow injury, and the Jets announced he wouldn’t return. Saints running back Darren Sproles was also taken out of the game with a concussion.

As a result, both teams looked lopsided on offense. The Saints lost Sproles in the first series, and had just 15 rushing yards at the half with 245 yards total offense. The Jets lost Kerley about midway through the half, and weren’t quite as off-balance, with 126 rushing to 95 passing yards. Interestingly, Jets receiver Stephen Hill hasn’t been a factor even with Kerley out.
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FLORHAM PARK, N.J. -- The New York Jets can upset the New Orleans Saints on Sunday -- yes, they can -- but they have to play the game on their terms. It has to be a street fight, old-school football, a game in the trenches. It can't be a basketball game, with Drew Brees leading the fast break, because the Jets aren't equipped to play that style.

The Saints are a finesse team, the model of what the NFL has become. The tenets that once shaped the game -- run the ball, stop the run -- don't apply to the Saints. They don't run it particularly well and they're giving up a league-high 4.8 yards per rush, but they're winning because they can throw it and catch it better than perhaps any team in the league.

The Jets recognize this. They respect the Saints, but they also believe they can knock them out of their comfort zone by playing big-boy football, smashing them in the mouth. Four weeks ago, they did it to the Atlanta Falcons, another team built around its skill players. The Jets see a lot of similarities between the Falcons and Saints, NFC South rivals.

[+] EnlargeChris Ivory
Ed Mulholland/USA TODAY SportsBruising back Chris Ivory of the Jets could do some damage against his former team.
"If we can handle Atlanta, we should, in theory, be able to handle New Orleans," linebacker Calvin Pace said Thursday.

It's not just a defensive thing. It's not just an offensive thing. It's an everything thing. The Jets have to set an early tone, on both sides of the ball, letting the Saints know it will be a two-chinstrap game, as coach Rex Ryan likes to say.

They can start by establishing a running attack, feeding Bilal Powell and ex-Saint Chris Ivory, who, no matter how much he downplays it, would love to rip a hole in his former team. Defensive coordinator Rob Ryan has done a nice job in his first season with the Saints, as his twin brother has pointed out every day this week, but it's hard to ignore that big, fat rushing stat: 4.8 yards per carry.

That's an engraved invitation for the Jets to impose their will on the Saints. They have to shorten the game, keep Brees on the sideline and make those New Orleans pass-rushers get dirty in the trenches, defending the run. They don't like to do that.

"Honestly, I feel like with the guys we have up front, we should be able to run the ball on everybody," right tackle Austin Howard said.

Everything the Saints do revolves around Brees and their high-scoring offense. When they jump to a quick lead, it allows Rob Ryan to be more aggressive on defense. It's easy to be a swashbuckling playcaller on defense when you have a 14-point lead every week. The Saints have 15 takeaways and 24 sacks, with 13 different players in the sack column.

"I think my brother is the only one without a sack on that team," Rex cracked.

For the Jets, it's all about Brees.

After getting shredded by a Brees wannabe, the Cincinnati Bengals' Andy Dalton, it's fair to wonder if they have what it takes to handle the real deal. The front four couldn't get close enough to Dalton to see the whites of his eyes, but it should have more chances against the Saints because of their vertical passing attack. Brees, looking downfield, will take deep dropbacks and hold the ball. There should be enough time for Muhammad Wilkerson & Co. to get home against the Saints' suspect line.

"We've shown we have one of the most explosive fronts in the game," linebacker Demario Davis said. "If we can cover for two or three seconds, and he's still holding the ball, I'm pretty sure somebody will be in his face."

Brees' favorite target is Jimmy Graham. He's a wide receiver in a tight end's body, and the Jets can't let him run freely through the secondary. He already has eight touchdown receptions, the same number as the entire Jets team. They want to get physical with him, show him the Bronx, so to speak. Cornerback Antonio Cromartie and safety Antonio Allen could take turns on Graham.

"I just have to get my hands on him and beat him up," said Allen, echoing the theme of the game plan.

The Jets have to play the game in the trenches, not on the perimeter. It's the only way to beat the Saints, a new-age team disproving the time-honored doctrines of the sport.

"I think the game has changed a little bit, obviously," Rex Ryan said. "When you're that prolific throwing the football, as they are -- and New England and Denver are -- that's how you get away with it."

The Jets have to turn back the calendar and go old school on the Saints. It's their only chance.

Cromartie on Graham? Could happen

October, 31, 2013
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FLORHAM PARK, N.J. -- The New Orleans Saints have several talented skill-position players that keep defensive coaches and players awake at night.

But the biggest nightmare is Jimmy Graham.

The 6-foot-7, 265-pound tight end is among the most difficult matchups in the NFL.

"He's a unique cat," Jets coach Rex Ryan said Thursday. "He's got the speed of a receiver, the size of an offensive tackle. So it's a huge challenge."

Last season, his third in the NFL, Graham was tied for 13th in the league with 85 receptions, for 982 yards and nine touchdowns. The year before he was even better -- 99 receptions, 1,310 yards, 11 touchdowns.

[+] EnlargeJimmy Graham
Matthew J. Lee/The Boston Globe via Getty ImagesThe Patriots put top cornerback Aqib Talib on Jimmy Graham and held him without a catch.
In seven games this season, he already has 40 receptions for 630 yards and eight touchdowns -- putting him on pace to finish with 91 for 1,440 and 18.

Graham is playing through a foot injury -- he only played 18 snaps in the Saints' victory over the Buffalo Bills last Sunday. But he still made a big impact -- targeted three times, catching three balls, two of them for scores.

He's been limited in practice the past two days, but you can bet he'll be on the field Sunday at MetLife Stadium.

The question is, how will the Jets try to stop him? More specifically, who will they turn to?

Two weeks ago, the Jets faced a similar challenge in New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski. Gronkowski did have eight catches for 114 yards in the game, but he was targeted 17 times.

Safety Antonio Allen was the man primarily responsible for guarding Gronk. "He did a good job," Ryan said. "From a body type, he's long and all that. So I think he did a good job."

But Graham -- listed as an inch taller than Gronkowski, and the same weight -- is even faster, multiple Jets players said Thursday.

Two weeks ago, when the Saints played the Patriots, the Pats put star cornerback Aqib Talib on Graham, as opposed to a safety or linebacker.

The result? Graham was held without a single catch for the first time in 46 games, since the middle of his rookie year.

So, would Ryan think about putting his No. 1 cornerback, Antonio Cromartie, on Graham this coming Sunday?

"It's a thought," Ryan said wryly, when asked the question Thursday.

Cromartie, like Talib, is a big cornerback -- 6-foot-2, 210 pounds. He hasn't had a good season thus far, but Ryan expressed confidence that Cromartie could do the job if asked.

"I think from a size (standpoint) and skill-wise, yeah I think he could handle him," Ryan said.

Cromartie did not speak with reporters Thursday. But linebacker Calvin Pace did.

"It's crazy, because Graham basically is a wide receiver, he just happens to be 6-7. It's a tough matchup, whoever you put on him. I don't want to guard him," Pace said, laughing.

"You put a safety on him, they've got a height advantage. It’s tough," Pace continued. "They do a good job of getting him in space so it's gonna be a person that's gotta get hands on him and just know where he is."

Cromartie will probably be that person Sunday, at least some of the time. Yes, Drew Brees has other weapons at his disposal -- wide receiver Marques Colston has 27 receptions for 342 yards, and fellow wideout Kenny Stills has 13 for 327, averaging 25.2 yards per catch. Plus don't forget about running backs Darren Sproles and Pierre Thomas.

But Graham is the man that must be stopped, or at least slowed down. If that means putting your best cornerback on him, so be it.
FLORHAM PARK, N.J. -- Drew Brees laughed over the phone.

The New Orleans Saints quarterback was asked Wednesday to respond to Rex Ryan's statement from Monday, the one where he said Brees will throw for 700 yards if the New York Jets' pass defense doesn't improve.

Brees
"Obviously," Brees said on a conference call with the New York media, "that's a slight exaggeration."

Slight? Does that mean he expects to throw for 600 yards? How 'bout 500?

Brees, who averages 327 yards per game, has to be feeling good about his chances after watching the Jets' horror show in Cincinnati, where Andy Dalton threw for 325 yards and five touchdowns in three quarters.

Since then, Ryan has been poking his defense with half-joking public comments about how they could be embarrassed by the high-scoring Saints. He did it again Wednesday.

"I told the team this: 'Quite honestly, [the Saints] are going to watch that tape from what happened and I wouldn't be surprised if Drew Brees and company aren't on the flight here early to make sure they got here,'" Ryan said.

Brees made sure to toss a few obligatory compliments toward the Jets' defense, claiming last week was an "aberration. ... That's not what you usually see when you turn on the film with th Jets' defense. Usually, they're pretty stifling, so I don't put much weight in that game last week."

Brees' favorite receiver is tight end Jimmy Graham, but his playing time and productive have declined the last two games because of a foot injury. He played only 17 snaps last week after averaging 49.6 snaps in the first seven games, according to ESPN Stats & Information. He caught only three passes last week, but two of them went for a touchdown.

Graham probably will be covered by safety Antonio Allen, who did a nice job two weeks ago against New England tight end Rob Gronkowski.

"It's been much the same type of matchup," Allen said. "They're both tall, physical guys. You have to beat them up and be physical with them."

Allen has another strategy: "Be a tick to him. Annoy him."

It's safe to say that, in the end, someone will get stung.

D succeeds in shutting down Graham

October, 13, 2013
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FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Given his superhuman start to the 2013 regular season, just finding a way to contain Saints tight end Jimmy Graham would've been a job well done for the Patriots secondary.

After all, in each of his five games entering Sunday's contest, Graham had either surpassed 100 yards receiving or hauled in a score, three times accomplishing both in a single game.

[+] EnlargeJimmy Graham
Stew Milne/USA TODAY SportsSaints TE Jimmy Graham, who led the league in receiving yards entering Week 6, was held without a catch for the first time since October 2010.
He led the league in receiving yards entering Week 6 with 596.

And that's exactly how many yards he left Sunday's game with, as the Patriots shut out the tight end from the box score, the first time he's gone without a catch since Halloween of 2010.

Safe to say slowing Graham down was a focus for the Patriots secondary.

"All week we knew, all we kept hearing was Jimmy Graham, Jimmy Graham," Patriots safety Devin McCourty said.

And as unlikely as it might have been to achieve, McCourty said following his team's thrilling 30-27 win that shutting down Graham -- not simply containing him -- was the goal for his secondary.

"You don't come in and say, 'we just want to try and contain him,' you come in with the game plan 'we got to try and shut him down,'" McCourty said. "That's the only way we'll have a chance to win this game, because if he has the type of game he's been having, we won't have a chance."

Though he left the game in the second half with a hip injury, cornerback Aqib Talib, who shadowed Graham while he was on the field, catalyzed the effort. Talib has emerged as perhaps the team's most valuable defender, ably containing top receivers throughout much of the season.

But Sunday was his best effort yet, finding a way to slow the league's best tight end.

"There's two good football players right there," Bill Belichick said of the Talib-Graham matchup. "Aqib, he really competed hard. In the end, I don't think either one of them were on the field. I think both guys ended up being out. It was a great battle, a great matchup, I thought Talib battled him."

Second-year cornerback Alfonzo Dennard, the starter opposite Talib, was in awe of his teammate's performance.

"Aqib is amazing. He is amazing," he said. "I like Aqib and I learn a lot from him."

He added that losing Talib was a difficult blow because of the game plan the team had built around using him to shadow Graham.

"It changed a lot because we had a whole little thing going by who Aqib goes to," he said. "A little matchup, so it changed a lot, but everything went well."

When Talib went down, the Patriots were forced to change things up on the fly, something they were able to accomplish in part by using McCourty at cornerback, the position he played when drafted out of Rutgers back in 2010.

He held his own at his old position and discussed the transition in a typically humble manner after the game.

"Once Aqib went down, we just had to adjust," McCourty said. "With me playing different positions in the defense, I'm able to be flexible and I was able to move around and play a bunch of different positions tonight."

In the end, regardless of who was responsible for marking Graham, who eventually left the game due to injury, it was an effort the secondary can hang its hat on.

"It's a lot of pride," Dennard said of the end result. "He's a very good tight end. Our biggest thing was to go in there and try to stop him, just stop their whole receiving corps and tight ends, so we did a pretty good job."
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The New England Patriots are coming off their first loss of the season, and questions are mounting about the team’s revamped offense. There are no such questions right now for the New Orleans Saints, who are 5-0 and have looked like one of the NFL’s best teams.

That sets the stage for Sunday's highly anticipated matchup between these teams at Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, Mass.

“They’re a good solid football team all the way around. They’ve been impressive,” Patriots coach Bill Belichick said of the Saints. “We’re going to have to play a good 60-minute football game on Sunday; that’s what it is going to take.”

In some ways, the Patriots will see a mirror image of themselves when looking at the Saints.

“I’ve said this before, when we started in 2006, we tried to look closely at the franchises that were having a lot of success and study closely what they were doing. New England was one of the main ones we looked at,” Saints coach Sean Payton said. “These guys have been to five Super Bowls and won three [under Belichick]. That is pretty amazing.”

Patriots reporter Mike Reiss and Saints reporter Mike Triplett break it down:

Reiss: Let’s start at the top with this one, Mike, and focus on the coaches. Patriots followers know they have one of the best coaches in the history of the game. Now in his 14th season, Belichick has the Patriots consistently contending. For the Saints, what stands out from here is what a difference it’s been to have Payton back on the sideline this season. What is it about Payton that makes him one of the NFL’s best coaches, and how has this turnaround from last year’s disappointment unfolded?

Triplett: You’re right to start there. It’s remarkable how much of an impact Payton’s return (and his absence last year) has made on this team. Earlier this season, I would've answer that question by talking more about intangibles. Having Payton in charge clearly gives the Saints a confidence and puts them in a comfort zone that was lost last year. I think that helped them win two early games that came down to the wire. But lately, it’s Payton’s offensive genius that has been making the biggest impact. He’s always stood out as arguably the best schemer and playcaller in the NFL. And that’s been on full display the past two weeks – first when the Saints picked apart the Miami Dolphins at home on a Monday night, then when they won last week at Chicago with a patient, ball-control game plan. Giving Payton toys like Jimmy Graham and Darren Sproles in recent years – not to mention quarterback Drew Brees – has been almost unfair to the rest of the league.

Since we’re on the subject, can you try telling me, in this brief format, what makes Belichick special? The Patriots seem to keep winning even while switching out 50 players on their roster over the years. I know that’s something the Saints have always admired and tried to emulate.

Reiss: Mike, I think the foundation of Belichick’s success has been what we remember from the start of Super Bowl XXXVI, in the Superdome, prior to the Patriots’ upset victory over the Rams in the 2001 season. The Patriots were introduced as a team before that game, as we all remember. There are obviously a lot of reasons for Belichick’s success, and books have been written about it, so it’s nearly impossible to narrow it down in a few sentences. But that’s where I’d start – the focus on the complete team in a salary-cap era that makes it hard to remain competitive year in, year out. There are many layers to that, and it obviously helps to have a quarterback like Tom Brady, but Belichick is also a teacher at heart. So team-first, where the 53rd player has a similar level of importance as a player in the 1-10 range. Then the fact he's a teacher with an incredible knowledge of football.

This week, there has been plenty of teaching as it relates to how they might be able to slow down the Saints’ offense. What has been the most effective approach you’ve seen teams employ against Graham and Sproles?

Triplett: There haven’t been many effective approaches against Graham. The Chicago Bears last week followed the formula that has worked best against the Saints over the years – a lot of Cover 2 zone defense that forced the Saints to settle for checkdown passes. But the Saints did a better job than I can ever remember of staying patient, settling for those short throws and avoiding turnovers. And Brees still completed 10 passes for 135 yards to Graham. Tampa Bay’s defense rattled the Saints in Week 2 by hitting Brees a lot with a good rush from their front four. But Graham still caught 10 passes for 179 yards and a touchdown. And if a team wants to totally take Graham away, like Miami did in Week 4, the Saints are happy to exploit that, too. Sproles had seven catches for 114 yards in that game before Graham caught a single pass. And Graham still finished with four catches for 100 yards and two touchdowns.

So how do you think the Patriots might approach it? They do have a better defense than most of the ones the Saints have faced this season.

Reiss: In a flip of the script that we had mostly seen from 2007 to 2012, the Patriots’ defense is carrying the team right now. The Patriots rank second in the NFL in points allowed per game (14.0 avg.), and that includes a Week 1 touchdown the Bills scored on a long fumble return. The key, from this view, has been the Pro Bowl-level play of cornerback Aqib Talib. As for this specific matchup, I’ve wondered about the possibility of Talib on Graham, similar to how we saw him almost exclusively cover Buccaneers receiver Vincent Jackson (Week 3) and Bengals receiver A.J. Green (Week 5). Usually you don’t see a cornerback matched up against a tight end, but maybe that outside-the-box thought is something the Patriots consider this week. Regardless, I expect the Patriots to be in their sub defense for most of this game. Their big linebackers don’t look like a good matchup against Sproles, so it’s imperative to get more speed on the field. I could see their top draft choice, speedy and athletic linebacker Jamie Collins, used more this week with Sproles in mind.

Speaking of defense, tell us more about how the Saints are getting it done on that side of the ball.

Triplett: Obviously a ton of credit goes to new defensive coordinator Rob Ryan. He’s been pushing all the right buttons as a schemer and a motivator. Players have loved playing for him for both reasons. It’s reminiscent of the years when Gregg Williams was here, when they played with a ton of confidence. And he mixes up formations quite a bit – blitzing on occasion, but also rushing only two or three guys at times. Last week he caught the Bears off-guard early with some blitzes he hadn’t shown much yet. Just as key, though, has been the emergence of young pass-rushers Cameron Jordan and Junior Galette. Jordan is a power-rushing 3-4 end, and Galette a speed-rushing 3-4 outside linebacker. But they’ve mostly lined up on the edges of a four-man rush. When teams can count on their four-man front as much as the Saints have this season, any scheme will be successful. The talent in the secondary is also solid across the board, especially now that they added veteran corner Keenan Lewis and rookie safety Kenny Vaccaro.

So what will they be facing in Brady this week? I know he hasn’t looked like himself at times, but I’m still expecting him to hold his own in this high-profile duel with Brees.

Reiss: The Saints will see a frustrated Brady, and that’s often a dangerous Brady. The Patriots scored just six points in Sunday’s loss to the Bengals, and Brady’s streak of 52 straight games with at least one touchdown pass was snapped. That had a Saints tie-in, of course, as Brees holds the record at 54 straight games. Brady is obviously still one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL and is as competitive as they come. I’m sure he’s aware that in three previous games in which he’s squared off against teams led by Brees, he’s 0-3. Brees has thrown eight touchdowns in those games, compared with three for Brady. Furthermore, Brady has thrown three interceptions in those games, while Brees hasn’t thrown a single pick. Obviously, the quarterbacks don’t face off against each other, but knowing Brady’s competitiveness that still doesn’t sit well with him. Expect his best, and the potential return of tight end Rob Gronkowski would obviously help.

I was curious about your thoughts on how the Saints might look different, if at all, when playing outdoors. Obviously they are awfully tough in the Superdome, but last week’s game in Chicago didn’t seem to affect them.

Triplett: The Saints have definitely had a few off-days outdoors over the years, especially in colder weather or rain (playoff losses at Chicago, Seattle and San Francisco come to mind). They’ve had a lot of good days in those elements, too, though. They have the best road record in the NFL since 2009 (23-11, one more win than the Patriots). And they’ve got two outdoor wins this season (the Chicago game and an ugly 16-14 win on a rainy day at Tampa Bay). So I don’t think it will be some sort of mental hurdle, and it’s not like they’re lost when they’re outside of the Superdome. But it will certainly be a hurdle they have to overcome. They’re definitely even more dangerous at home.

I was stunned to see how dominant New England has been at home, by the way (31-3 since 2009). Brees rattled off that statistic Wednesday – obviously it’s one that’s been drilled into players this week. What makes the Patriots so good at home?

Reiss: When I think of decisive home-field advantages, with the crowd truly dictating aspects of the game such as false-start penalties, I wouldn’t put Gillette Stadium in the same category as a place like Seattle. But like you said, home has been good to the Patriots, and I think the comforts of being in that environment, coupled with having good teams, getting better as the weather gets colder, acing critical situations and playing in a division where the other three teams have fallen on some hard times in recent years has contributed to that as well. I’m guessing that Saints offensive coordinator Pete Carmichael, who grew up in nearby Medway, Mass., might agree with the thought that Sunday has all the elements for what can make this a special time of year in New England for fans of the game: crisp but comfortable fall weather and two talented, well-coached teams playing at a high level going head-to-head. I’m excited for it, Mike. What about the matchup are you most looking forward to?

Triplett: Easy. Brees vs. Brady. I’m sure I could give a more “under the radar” answer. But watching two of the best quarterbacks of all time going head-to-head is as good as it gets. And I think both of them will be fired up for this one for different reasons. Should be an intense fourth quarter.

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Jimmy Graham and Ryan TannehillAP PhotoJimmy Graham has as many touchdown catches (4) as Ryan Tannehill has TD throws.
One team is the biggest surprise in the NFL. The other has worked its way back to prominence after the return of its Super Bowl-winning head coach.

That leads to a monumental matchup of undefeated teams when the Miami Dolphins travel to face the New Orleans Saints on ESPN’s “Monday Night Football.” This is the only matchup of unbeatens in Week 4.

Is Miami ready for prime time? Can the Saints stay hot?

ESPN.com’s Dolphins reporter James Walker and Saints reporter Mike Triplett weigh in.

James Walker: Mike, I don’t know whether we can have this discussion without starting at the top with the head coaches of both teams. Joe Philbin in Miami and Sean Payton in New Orleans have done a tremendous job through three games. Dare I say we could be looking at two early coach of the year candidates if the Dolphins and Saints maintain their winning ways. For Philbin, I’ve really been impressed with his game planning and his attention to detail in his second year. Miami has committed just two penalties for 13 yards in the past two games. This is a team that doesn’t beat itself. Miami also is outscoring opponents 41-16 in the second half, a credit to the coaching staff’s ability to make halftime adjustments. Mike, you saw the impact of Payton when he was suspended in 2012. How much has Payton meant to New Orleans’ fast start?

Mike Triplett: Well, let’s start with those two traits you just mentioned: game planning and attention to detail. I think Payton has been the best game planner and offensive schemer in the league during his tenure in New Orleans, especially exploiting mismatches in the passing game. Also, when asked that same question you just posed, players such as quarterback Drew Brees have said Payton’s attention to detail and ability to focus on what’s most important are what make him stand out. But I think, more than anything, there is just a confidence and comfort level that has returned along with Payton. The Saints believe that Payton is going to put them in the right situations to win -- and have an answer when things aren’t working. I think that played a big part in their down-to-the-wire victories over the Atlanta Falcons and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in Week 1 and Week 2.

I have to imagine that “trust” and “confidence” are some words that are starting to be used to describe Philbin and quarterback Ryan Tannehill around Miami. I’ll admit that from afar I didn’t expect this much out of Tannehill in his second season. What’s working so well?

Walker: I’ve seen Tannehill up close and personal from his first minicamp in 2012 after he was drafted, and even I’m surprised with how well he is playing in Year 2. If you told me before the season that Tannehill would have a better passer rating (94.3) than Brees (91.4) after three games, I would have thought you were crazy. But there really are not a lot of quarterbacks playing better football right now than Tannehill. He has outdueled Andrew Luck and Matt Ryan in back-to-back weeks. On top of that, he has made key drives in the fourth quarter in both games, something I did not see from Tannehill in his rookie year. His growth involves more than statistics. Tannehill’s confidence has skyrocketed, and the game appears easier and is slowing down for him. But a big concern has been pass protection. Miami has allowed 14 sacks and faces an aggressive Saints defense. How do you view that matchup, Mike?

Triplett: The Saints’ young defense has been just as surprising -- especially the way it has been able to generate consistent pressure with its four-man front. The Saints have eight sacks (four of them last week). End Cameron Jordan and outside linebacker Junior Galette have been particularly disruptive. And players are clearly responding to new coordinator Rob Ryan’s versatile schemes (a mix of 3-4 and 4-3). They’re still a work in progress, but, if Miami’s pass protection is suspect, the Saints sure look prepared to exploit it.

Tell me about the Dolphins’ defense. I know it's been solid, but will it have answers for matchup problems such as Jimmy Graham, Darren Sproles and Marques Colston?

Walker: I’m not sure Miami has a lot of answers for New Orleans defensively. That’s why I think the Saints are a tough matchup for the Dolphins. Miami has had trouble for years defending tight ends. It was one of the reasons the Dolphins upgraded at linebacker in free agency, signing Dannell Ellerbe and Philip Wheeler. But Miami still struggled until the second half last week against Tony Gonzalez of Atlanta. Graham’s athleticism over the middle could be a nightmare for the Dolphins. Brent Grimes has been terrific for Miami and has a good track record against the Saints. But New Orleans could have a lot of success attacking the Dolphins’ second and third corners. I think Miami’s best chance to disrupt the Saints is with its pass rush. Pro Bowl defensive end Cameron Wake’s (knee) status is up in the air, but the Dolphins’ blitz packages have been a strength. How would you assess New Orleans’ offensive line, and can it improve?

Triplett: The Saints’ pass protection has been surprisingly porous. Brees has been sacked 10 times, the most in any three-game stretch since he arrived in 2006. The Saints have actually allowed the fewest sacks in the NFL over that stretch -- so it’s a problem I think they’ll correct. It will be huge for them if they can get All-Pro right guard Jahri Evans back healthy. While he was out last week with a hamstring injury, his rookie backup Tim Lelito allowed three sacks. But the rest of the line is still solid, including new left tackle Charles Brown. And Brees and Payton are savvy enough to keep him clean. The bigger issue for the Saints’ offense has been its lack of a consistent run game. I think it’ll still be pretty pass-heavy this week against Miami. Sounds like the run game has been an issue for the Dolphins, too?

Walker: The only way I can describe Miami’s running game, Mike, is sluggish. It just hasn’t looked good, and various parts aren’t on the same page. Sometimes, it’s the offensive line missing blocks. Other times, it’s the running backs not eluding tacklers. The play calling on runs, too, has been predictable. Add this up and you have a Dolphins team averaging 3.2 yards per carry. Miami running backs Lamar Miller and Daniel Thomas still have a lot to prove. They haven’t showed much in three weeks, but Monday’s game is a good opportunity. The Saints’ defense has allowed 5.3 yards per carry. It’s the one hole I’ve seen so far in the New Orleans defense. Look for Miami’s offense to try to grind out yards on the ground and control the clock to some degree. That will be big playing on the road. Speaking of which, a big topic in Miami this week is playing in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. The Dolphins are 2-0 on the road, but this could be their biggest challenge to date. How much will home-field advantage affect this game, especially in front of a rowdy Monday night crowd?

Triplett: The Saints’ home-field advantage is no joke, especially for these prime-time night games. The Saints have won 10 straight night games at home, including the playoffs, and 13 of their past 14. Whatever advantage you can get from a loud dome and a frenzied crowd, the Saints obviously seem to feed off it. I asked new Saints tight end Benjamin Watson about it earlier this year, and he said the loudest game he ever played in was a regular-season Monday night game in the Dome when he was with the New England Patriots in 2009. And you hear that kind of stuff quite a bit from visiting players. At least some folks in the crowd will be cheering for NOLA native Mike Wallace, though.

All right, speed round. If the Dolphins win Monday night, who will get the game ball?

Walker: It would have to come down to Miami’s defense. I don’t see the Dolphins beating the Saints on the road in an offensive shootout. Someone in the secondary must have a big game for Miami to pull this out. The top two candidates are probably Grimes and safety Reshad Jones. Brees is going to throw the ball in the Superdome -- a lot. Someone such as Grimes or Jones probably has to get a big turnover or two to give the Dolphins momentum. Jones believes he’s one of the NFL’s top young safeties, and he’s being paid like one after his summer contract extension. This is the type of national game to prove it, especially when matched up against Graham. Which key player could thrive for New Orleans?

Triplett: I’m cheating if I say Brees or Graham, right? I’ll give you two other names, as well -- Sproles on offense and Galette on defense. I think Sproles looks as dynamic as ever as a runner/receiver, so it might be his turn to bust out if the Dolphins concentrate too much on stopping Graham. And Galette is the Saints’ speed-rusher who could best exploit the Dolphins’ pass-protection issues.

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The NFL Network wrapped up its annual list of the league’s top 100 players this week. It’s a popular project in which the players themselves, which is a good angle to take.

However, something really stood out from an AFC East perspective: Buffalo Bills running back C.J. Spiller and safety Jairus Byrd were both snubbed, left out of the top 100 as chosen their peers. But Byrd has represented the AFC in the Pro Bowl twice in the past four years, while not everyone on that list is a Pro Bowler. Spiller rushed for 1,244 yards, six touchdowns and averaged 6.0 yards per carry in 2012. He's one of the league’s most dynamic running backs.

Here is the simplest explanation why Byrd and Spiller didn’t make the list: Both play for Buffalo.

Sometimes these votes can be a popularity contest, even among fellow athletes. Spiller and Byrd play for the lowly Bills, who currently have the NFL's longest playoff drought, at 13 years. It's clear Buffalo doesn’t have much respect around the league -- and that's something the team has to earn by winning on the field. Byrd and Spiller were both guilty by Bills association.

But at least there is some reason for the Byrd and Spiller omissions. Perhaps the biggest snub from the NFL Network’s top 100 is New Orleans Saints tight end Jimmy Graham. There is no explanation for him not being on the list.

Notes from Patriots-Saints practice

August, 8, 2012
8/08/12
12:41
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FOXBOROUGH, Mass. – The New England Patriots completed their second joint practice against the New Orleans Saints on Wednesday. The AFC East blog was there to check out the action.

Here are a few observations:
  • Patriots quarterback Tom Brady was sharper in his second practice against the Saints. Brady missed several throws he usually makes on Tuesday but made up for it Wednesday. Brady began 7 on 7 drills by throwing back-to-back touchdown passes to tight end Rob Gronkowski and Wes Welker in the red zone. Brady didn't throw as much on Wednesday but looked better in limited reps.
  • The more I see Saints tight end Jimmy Graham, the more I like him. Graham made a couple of really nice catches against the Patriots’ first-team defense in team drills. One was a spectacular catch down the seam from Saints quarterback Drew Brees where Graham jumped over New England rookie linebacker Dont’a Hightower. Graham has gotten the best of Hightower in the joint practices this week. It's been a good learning experience for the rookie linebacker to face one of the top tight ends in the NFL.
  • Speaking of rookies, both Hightower and defensive end Chandler Jones continue to get reps with the first team this week. That probably will continue in Thursday’s preseason opener. Both rookies are flashing their athleticism and have a chance to carve out a solid role in New England’s defense early.
  • The impressive play of the day came from Patriots backup quarterback Brian Hoyer. In team drills Hoyer connected on a beautiful deep pass to a leaping backup receiver Jesse Holley in team drills. The play got one of the loudest cheers from the fans.
  • Overall, it was a much lighter practice Wednesday. Both teams got in some good team work before tomorrow’s preseason game. The Saints and Patriots had a joint agreement not to go too hard before their exhibition.
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Jimmy Graham or Rob Gronkowski? Take your pick.

One is a 6-foot-7 former basketball player who can go up and catch the highest of passes. The other is a 6-foot-6, 265-pound beast with very strong hands and a knack for running through defenders. Both are elite and it's hard to go wrong with either player.

The NFL's two best tight ends shared the practice field Tuesday, as the New England Patriots hosted the New Orleans Saints for a joint scrimmage. There has been a ton of debate this offseason over who is better. According to a recent player survey by the NFL Network, Graham edged Gronkowski in the voting.

[+] EnlargeNew England's Rob Gronkowski
Stew Milne/US PRESSWIRERob Gronkowski, above, is sharing the practice field with the Saints Jimmy Graham this week.
But both tight ends showed in Tuesday's practice why they can make a strong case for the No. 1 spot. Gronkowski caught two red zone touchdowns in 7-on-7 drills, and Graham also caught a touchdown in the same drill and did his trademark slam dunk between the goalposts.

Graham was asked the highly-debatable question after the joint practice, and, naturally, picked himself.

“Of course I would,” said a confident Graham, who caught 99 passes for 1,310 yards and 11 touchdowns last season. “I’m young and the thing about me is I’ve been playing three years and I know I’m getting better. I’m focused on getting better. I know my weaknesses and I know where I need to improve."

Gronkowski said he wasn’t thinking about a one-on-one competition with Graham this week. The Patriots will practice against the Saints twice before playing in Thursday's preseason game at Gillette Stadium.

“There’s really no competition [going on],” said Gronkowski, who caught 90 passes for 1,327 yards and 17 touchdowns in 2011. “He’s a great player, and that’s why every team has a position of tight end. He’s a great guy that you can put the film on and seeing what he’s doing to get open. He’s doing a great job at it and you can learn from other tight ends in the league.”

Gronkowski said he trained with Graham two years ago in Florida before the NFL combine. At the time, both players had major question marks that hurt their draft stock. Gronkowski had a back injury that dropped him to the second round to New England. Graham was a basketball player at the University of Miami with just one year of collegiate football experience. He dropped to the third round. Drafting these tight ends turned out to be the smartest moves each team has made in recent years.

Both tight ends are very close by comparison. The Graham supporters would say he's more athletic and can get vertical better than Gronkowski. The Gronkowski supporters would say he's a significantly better run-blocker than Graham and a more complete tight end. "Gronk" also catches more touchdowns.

Even watching both players practice up close together on Tuesday, it's a really difficult choice.

"It's two totally different animals. I hate to call them animals, but it is what it is,” Saints safety Roman Harper said laughing.

Harper continued to break down each player.

“I think Jimmy is just more of a strider, he's going to be faster than Gronk, but he's more of a strider and he comes out of the break and he's just like, 'Drew throw it up It's more of a rebound, I'm going to get it.' So he's going to be more athletic,” Harper said. “Then you've got Gronk, who is just a big guy and he's a big target, and he's going [to give] a little body action, and of course Tom [Brady] was putting it right on him. Gronk makes his money after the catch. If you look at him, that's where he makes all of his money.”

Don’t forget about the Patriots’ second tight end: Aaron Hernandez. He's also a top-five player at the position. Hernandez caught 79 receptions for 910 yards and seven touchdowns.

The offensive talent in Foxborough this week is immense, especially when you have three of the top five tight ends sharing the same practice field. Graham said he surely will pick up a few pointers from his tight-end peers before leaving Foxborough.

“I watch a lot of film on Hernandez and Gronkowski,” Graham said. “The way [Gronkowski] uses his body, and the way Hernandez is a technician in his routes. I try to take as much as I can from the both of them and apply it to my game.”
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. – The first of two scrimmages between the New England Patriots and New Orleans Saints is in the books. It was a good opportunity for both teams to practice against someone else leading into Thursday's preseason game at Gillette Stadium.

Here are several observations:
  • It was a disappointing scrimmage for the Patriots' offense. Quarterback Tom Brady and Co. did not look sharp in team drills. Brady was off and missed at least four throws he usually makes. He was picked off twice by Saints linebacker Curtis Lofton and safety Malcolm Jenkins, respectively. Brady also overthrew receiver Brandon Lloyd on a pair of deep bombs that could have been big plays. Brady also missed Patriots Pro Bowl tight end Rob Gronkowski over the middle. You could tell in Brady’s body language that he wasn’t happy with Tuesday’s practice.
  • Meanwhile, the Saints’ offense had more success against New England’s defense. New Orleans’ quarterback Drew Brees was the sharper quarterback of the two and made nice connections to receiver Joseph Morgan, Lance Moore and Pro Bowl tight end Jimmy Graham. Brees’ only glaring mistake was an interception over the middle to Patriots safety Steve Gregory.
  • It was a tough day for cornerback Kyle Arrington. New England’s interception leader in 2011 was beat on a pair of big gains to Moore and Graham. Arrington is getting a lot of work in the slot but still needs to work on his technique playing the position.
  • Patriots rookie defensive end Chandler Jones flashed on Tuesday. He had a nice play against Brees where he provided good pressure and batted the ball down. Due to injuries and opportunities, Jones and Hightower are getting some important reps with the first team this week, which the Patriots hope will speed up their development.
  • Brian Hoyer probably had the best day of New England's quarterbacks. Hoyer wasn’t perfect, but he did make some very good and accurate passes in team drills, a couple of which thread the needle between defenders. Hoyer is battling with fellow backup Ryan Mallett for the No. 2 quarterback spot behind Brady.
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Tom Brady against Drew Brees? Yes, please.

Pro Bowl tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Jimmy Graham competing on opposite teams? Sure.

Two playoff contenders going head-to-head in practice? Let's do it!

There's a lot to look forward to in Tuesday's intra-squad scrimmage between the New England Patriots and New Orleans Saints. It’s a great opportunity and a change of pace for both teams to practice against someone else before Thursday's preseason game at Gillette Stadium.

Field Yates of ESPN Boston takes a look at the interesting subplots to look out for this week. Personally, I'm most curious to see how New England's 31st-ranked defense competes against one of the top offenses and quarterbacks in the league. It will be a good, early gauge to see how much New England's defense has improved.

Remember to follow us on Twitter here for live updates from the Patriots' scrimmage against the Saints. We also will have a report in the AFC East blog this evening following practice and media interviews.
I like Jimmy Graham of the New Orleans Saints. But he's not the best tight end in the NFL.

The league's best tight end resides in New England. His name is Rob Gronkowski. Maybe you've heard of him. He set NFL records for receiving yards (1,327) and touchdowns (17) for the position last season. Graham (1,310 yards and 11 touchdowns) wasn't far behind, but he's certainly not ahead.

[+] EnlargeRob Gronkowski
AP Photo/Charles KrupaRob Gronkowski set NFL tight end records in receiving yards and touchdowns.
NFL players got the vote wrong by ranking Graham seven spots higher than Gronkowski. Graham finished as the 14th best player -- and the No. 1 tight end -- in the league. Gronkowski was 21st overall and No. 2 at his position.

Although Gronkowski has the edge in numbers, that's not everything. He is also more well-rounded than Graham in things you don't see on the stat sheet.

Gronkowski doesn't get enough credit for being one of the top run-blocking tight ends in the league. He's much more physical than Graham and isn't afraid to mix it up in the trenches. Graham admitted that is the weakest part of his game, which is important to being an all-around tight end.

Both players are dangerous in the red zone, but that edge also goes to Gronkowski. The Patriots' tight end has 11 more touchdowns than Graham the past two seasons.

You also have to wonder if the players' vote has something to do with Gronkowski playing in New England. For years Patriots often get labeled as "system players." The team has had so much success thanks to great coaching from Bill Belichick and quarterback play from Tom Brady that other players like Gronkowski, Wes Welker, etc. do not get the credit they deserve. The Saints have had great coaching (Sean Payton) and quarterback play (Drew Brees) in recent years, as well. But Graham apparently gets more credit as an individual.

Both Gronkowski and Graham are the two best tight ends at their position. But you have to consider the full package when comparing the two. Gronkowski has a few more tools, which gives him the advantage.

Toby Gerhart a Belichick-style runner

April, 12, 2010
4/12/10
3:20
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ESPNBoston.com has been posting footage of the draft party it recently sponsored for New England Patriots season-ticket holders.

In this clip, the panel (analysts Tedy Bruschi and Todd McShay, ESPNBoston.com reporter Mike Reiss and Patriots Football Weekly assistant editor Andy Hart) discusses what types of players will be available in the second round. The Patriots own four picks inside the first 53 selections.

McShay's short list of possibilities includes Texas Christian outside linebacker Jerry Hughes, Clemson outside linebacker Ricky Sapp and Utah outside linebacker Koa Misi, Brigham Young tight end Dennis Pitta and Iowa cornerback Amari Spievey.

Reiss mentions Notre Dame receiver Golden Tate and North Carolina defensive tackle Cam Thomas.

Hart's candidates include USC receiver Damian Williams and Miami tight end Jimmy Graham.

But Bruschi elicited applause when he explained a position nobody else mentioned.

"A position where a lot of people and a lot of fans watching the Patriots fans have grown impatient is running back," Bruschi said. "A lot of people have seen sort of the developmental process of Laurence Maroney. It seems like it's gone on for a long time.

"I know a lot of you have been frustrated with him, and I know Laurence. He's a hard worker. He does a lot of things right. But you've got to go by what you see on the film, and he's struggled at times."

Bruschi likes what he has seen from Heisman Trophy finalist Toby Gerhart of Stanford and considers him the type of hard-charging back Bill Belichick prefers.

"He's a guy that runs hard," Bruschi said. "The way Bill likes to see running backs run is 'Get yardage. Just get what you can get and then get out. So run straight up the field.' This is what this kid is.

"You see him running through guys, straight up the field, north-south. Get the yards. Stop dancing and then here we go: second-and-2, second-and-1. That's what everybody wants."

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