NFC East: jimmy graham

IRVING, Texas -- Jimmy Graham was unable to declare himself a wide receiver in an arbitration case, but the New Orleans Saints tight end did fairly well with his reported four-year, $40 million deal that includes $21 million guaranteed.

As the Dallas Cowboys and Dez Bryant look for ways to come to an agreement on a long-term deal so they can avoid any franchise-tag hassle next offseason, can Graham’s deal be something of a barometer for Bryant?

Graham
Bryant
Bryant
Graham argued he was a receiver because he lined up mostly off the line. It was an argument that was eventually denied by an arbiter, but there is some truth to what he was saying. Graham is not a tight end in the way Jason Witten is a tight end. But that is his position. Bryant will never be asked to put his hand on the ground to block somebody the way Graham is asked to do at least part of the time for the Saints.

But I digress. Let’s just look at the statistical comparisons of Bryant and Graham. Both players were selected in the 2010 draft. Bryant was a first-round pick, so he has an extra year on his rookie deal. Graham was a third-round pick.

In the past three seasons their numbers are fairly similar.

Bryant: 248 catches, 3,543 yards, 34 touchdowns.
Graham: 270 catches, 3,507 yards, 36 touchdowns.

Any discussions between the Cowboys and Bryant’s agent, Eugene Parker, have been kept under wraps for the most part. Most of the figures thrown around have been by the media. There are seven wide receivers with an average annual value of at least $10 million: Brandon Marshall, Calvin Johnson, Larry Fitzgerald, Percy Harvin, Mike Wallace, Dwayne Bowe and Vincent Jackson.

Marshall, Johnson, Fitzgerald, Wallace, Bowe and Jackson have at least $20 million in guaranteed money in their deals, as does Andre Johnson, who is threatening a holdout from the Houston Texans' training camp.

Graham’s contract puts him in line with receivers if not with the top-paid guys like Johnson ($16.2 million), Fitzgerald ($16.1 million). Harvin ($12.9 million) and Wallace ($12 million) who cashed in during free agency. Bowe averages $11.2 million. The Washington Redskins signed DeSean Jackson to a three-year, $24 million deal that included $16 million guaranteed in the offseason.

So where does Bryant fit in? Should he get Graham’s $10 million average or play out the season and possibly get tagged (that was $12.3 million in 2014)?

There is some middle ground in which both sides can compromise, but Graham's deal could help define just where that ground is, even if he is a tight end (wink, wink).
IRVING, Texas -- Jason Witten didn't need to be at Monday's organized team activity.

His son had surgery in the morning, and the OTAs are voluntary. Plus, Witten has a resume complete with nine Pro Bowls and a Dallas Cowboys' franchise record 879 catches.

[+] EnlargeJason Witten
Tony Gutierrez/AP PhotoVeteran tight end Jason Witten takes part in Dallas Cowboys' team drills during Monday's OTAs.
But once he knew his son was fine, Witten drove to Valley Ranch and showed up a little late for the workout. While teammates went through individual drills, Witten warmed up off to the side. By the time team drills began, he was ready.

He wanted to be there not just to improve as a player under the early June sun, but to show his teammates how important the game is to him.

"This time of year you go back to the fundamentals," Witten said. "As an offense you run the basic plays and as an individual player you go back to the basics of what the fundamentals are and it's going to allow you to be better. I've taken a lot of pride in doing those really well. And this time of year you can tighten it up even more."

Playoff success fuels Witten more than catches. Only Tony Gonzalez has more catches by a tight end in NFL history, but Witten would trade it all in to win more.

That's why he won't miss an offseason workout, an OTA or a minicamp practice. That's why he will fight the coaches who want him to take a day off in training camp next month.

He is on his sixth position coach with Mike Pope taking over for Wes Phillips. He is on his sixth playcaller in Scott Linehan. There is a new energy brought by changes with coaches who see things a little differently.

"I think with Scott it's been neat to see just his ideas and his view on things," Witten said. "Obviously I've got a lot of respect for him and the success he's had in this league, so being around him is good. Then obviously coach Pope, new ideas and new ways to kind of dive into my world and make me a better player. That's been really good and coming to work every day in finding ways to even be better than what you've done before."

From the outside, Pope and Linehan had a great appreciation for Witten. Now on the inside, the appreciation has grown.

"You think of tight ends and he's like the first guy that comes to my mind as far as the position goes," Linehan said. "He's an every-down player. You don't see that so much. There are a few guys in this league that never come off the field at the tight end position. He's been kind of the one that set the standard, set the bar, so to speak, in this league the last 10 years or so."

Where Linehan would need two, sometimes three tight ends to handle the role in previous spots, he can use Witten in the slot, on the line, in pass protection, as the front-side blocker or as the back-side blocker in the run game and even some fullback.

"He knows everything that you would ask a tight end to know but more," Linehan said. "I mean he's like a quarterback at tight end. He knows all the nuances of the run game. He knows the protections better than anyone. I just think so much of that is him making it that important. ...You can tell he made it his business to know as much as he needed to know."

Witten uses the other tight ends in the league, such as Antonio Gates, Rob Gronkowski, Jimmy Graham, and Vernon Davis, to push himself to continue to be at the top of his game.

"I want to try to compete with those guys the best I can," Witten said.

Witten turned 32 last month. He is entering his 12th season. He knows the years are running out, but he thinks more about his hand placement for a block than he does retirement at this point.

"I think more than anything you get in that routine, you feel confident in what you can do and how you can practice and prepare," Witten said. "I'd rather leave it all out there than say I still had some gas in the tank."

Franchise/transition tags: Eagles

February, 17, 2014
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The Philadelphia Eagles don’t have an obvious target for use of the franchise or transition tag, which is mostly a positive thing.

It means they have most of their most important players under negotiated contracts and don’t have to anger anyone by using the tag to keep him from free agency. Using the tag has created bad feelings and problems for the Eagles in the past, most dramatically when they removed the tag from linebacker Jeremiah Trotter after weeks of bitter back-and-forth.

The negative aspect, of course, is that the players most likely to be tagged -- such as Jimmy Graham of the Saints and T.J. Ward of the Browns -- are from the 2010 draft class. The Eagles don’t have star players from that class they are fighting to keep.

Monday is the first day teams can apply franchise and transition tags to players. For an explanation of tags and their ramifications, click here.

Safety Nate Allen and wide receiver Riley Cooper were starters in 2013. The Eagles wouldn’t mind having both back. But they are not likely to want to pay them franchise-tag salaries -- likely to be more than $8 million for one season for safeties and $10 million-plus for wide receivers.

The Eagles took Allen one pick before Cleveland selected Ward. Four years later, the Eagles remain in dire need of safety help. They are apt to be affected more by Ward’s status than Allen’s. If Ward is on the market, the Eagles could be very interested in him. At the very least, he would expand the pool of free-agent safeties.

The Eagles’ first-round pick from 2010, Brandon Graham, still has another year on his rookie contract. Nine of the 10 other 2010 draftees on shorter deals are long gone. The 10th, safety and special-teams guy Kurt Coleman, is certainly not going to be tagged.

The Eagles’ most intriguing decision among their free-agents-to-be concerns wide receiver Jeremy Maclin. The 2009 first-round pick missed the entire 2013 season after tearing his ACL in training camp.

Could the Eagles use the tag to hang on to Maclin and try to work out a more reasonable deal? It’s possible, but not likely.

That’s how general manager Howie Roseman deployed the tag in 2012, the last time the Eagles used it. Roseman tagged wide receiver DeSean Jackson. By mid-March, Roseman had signed Jackson to a new five-year contract.

The difference here is that Maclin is coming off his second ACL surgery. The Eagles or another team might want him on a one-year, prove-it deal, but not at a guaranteed $10-11 million.
PHILADELPHIA -- There’s an old saying that sums up a superior head coach: He can beat your team with his team, and he can take your team and beat you coaching his team.

That comes close to describing what happened to Eagles coach Chip Kelly in his first NFL playoff game Saturday night. Kelly's otherwise impressive debut season ended by getting schooled by Saints head coach Sean Payton and his staff.

The Eagles were the team with the No. 1 rushing attack in the NFL. Payton turned the tables, running the ball down the Eagles’ throats. The Eagles' defense prided itself on stopping the run first, but it was the Saints' defense that rendered LeSean McCoy a non-factor for much of the game.

The Saints focused on stopping McCoy and DeSean Jackson, the Eagles’ two most dangerous weapons. Kelly couldn’t find a way to unleash them or to beat the Saints with other players.

[+] EnlargeMark Ingram
Elsa/Getty ImagesMark Ingram and the Saints found plenty of room to run Saturday night.
The Eagles focused on stopping Saints tight end Jimmy Graham and had some success. But it was beside the point, because Payton shredded the Eagles with Mark Ingram and Khiry Robinson.

“They were running downhill,” Kelly said. “If you told [me] going in we were going to hold Jimmy Graham to three catches, I thought that would be a pretty good deal. But give them credit. They did a really good job of running the football against us, which was a little bit uncharacteristic of us. We’ve done a pretty good job of that all year long.”

Not Saturday. The Saints rushed for 185 yards, averaging 5.1 yards per carry.

“That is on me,” defensive coordinator Bill Davis said. “I made the calls so their passing game wouldn’t result in big plays. There was a lot more split safety and pass-oriented calls. Some of the runs leaked out. I could have called more of a run-heavy defensive game and shut that down, but we were trying to keep the points down and the big plays off us.”

The Saints scored 26 points – 20 in the second half – and had four plays of more than 20 yards.

On the other side of the ball, the Eagles couldn’t really explain why McCoy was held to 77 yards on 21 carries. That’s 3.7 yards per carry, 1.4 yards below his regular-season average.

“Early on, there was some miscommunication,” center Jason Kelce said. “The first two drives in particular, guys didn’t understand where the point [of attack] was or who they had [to block]. There would be lanes open, but they would close right away.”

That sounds like the trenches-level view of an offense that was confused and surprised by what the defense was doing. And that is coaching.

“I’ll give credit to [Saints defensive coach] Rob Ryan,” Kelly said. “Rob did a nice job. They had a really good game plan.”

Coaching is also about adjusting within the game. In the first half, the Eagles had targeted Jackson only once. The ball was thrown well over his head.

“We tried,” Kelly said. “The first couple of plays at the beginning of the second half were trying to get the ball to him, but we took sacks again and didn’t get the ball out in time.”

The Eagles’ first two possessions after the coaches made halftime adjustments netted minus-9 yards. The Saints’ first two possessions of the second half netted 119 yards and two touchdowns.

The Eagles’ two second-half touchdown drives consisted mostly of two jump balls thrown to Jackson. When Saints rookie cornerback Keenan Lewis got hurt, quarterback Nick Foles attacked his replacement, Corey White. Jackson caught the first one for a 40-yard gain. White committed a 40-yard pass interference penalty on the second.

The penalty set up the Eagles’ go-ahead touchdown with just under five minutes left in the game. They never got the ball back. Just as the Eagles had sustained long time-killing drives in Green Bay and Tampa, when the opponent knew they were running and couldn’t do anything about it, the Saints ran the clock down to zero and won the game.

"That was the story of the game," Eagles linebacker Connor Barwin said. "This was the wrong time to give up [rushing yards]. It was way too much and it showed on that last drive."

Payton didn’t beat Kelly with his own team, but he came close. He beat Kelly with his own philosophy.
New Orleans SaintsAl Bello/Getty ImagesThe Eagles had their chances but couldn't do the little things to beat the Saints.
PHILADELPHIA -- Quarterback Nick Foles warmed up on the sideline, waiting for another chance, for one more possession.

It never came. Instead of running onto the field to try to lead the Philadelphia Eagles to one more score, Foles watched the New Orleans Saints celebrate a 26-24 playoff victory. Instead of regrouping for a playoff game against the Carolina Panthers next Sunday, Foles and his teammates will spend the offseason picking at the seams of a game they let slip away.

"It's tough right now," Foles said. "There are a lot of emotions and I'm holding it together. ... I'm hurting inside right now in my heart."

"They killed us slowly," running back LeSean McCoy said. "It was a terrible feeling. There was nothing we could do but watch."

By the time Shayne Graham's 32-yard field goal sailed through the uprights as time expired, there was nothing they could do. But for the 59 minutes and 57 seconds before that, there was plenty they could have done.

That's why these are the hardest games to lose, the ones in which a dropped pass here, a missed field goal there accumulate like individual snowflakes until a team's hopes are buried in an avalanche. On Saturday afternoon, the Eagles were improbable NFC East champions with a chance to do something special in coach Chip Kelly's first season.

By midnight, they were finished. Buried.

"It's just disappointing," Kelly said. "I don't think us winning the division or getting to the playoffs was a surprise to us. I just think everybody is really disappointed that we're not moving forward."

"I've never been out of the first round of the playoffs," left tackle Jason Peters said. "I felt like this is the year. But we got knocked out and we're at home now. That kickoff, the missed field goal, a couple drops, that sack -- there's a bunch of stuff that went wrong that's messing with me right now. Just got to get over it."

It will take some of them longer to get over than others. Peters is 31. He tore his Achilles tendon twice and had it surgically repaired twice. After missing the entire 2012 season, he returned this year and earned another Pro Bowl berth. He doesn't know how many more chances he's going to get.

Cornerback Cary Williams won a Super Bowl ring with the Baltimore Ravens last year. He was seething after losing this game, to this team, with so much at stake.

"I don't know whether it was the moment or what it was," Williams said. "But we've got to get better in that scenario, in these situations. We failed. We lost to a team that wasn't necessarily better than us. They weren't better than us, period."

Williams was in the middle of the single play that cost the Eagles most dearly. Foles hit tight end Zach Ertz for a 3-yard touchdown to give the Eagles a 24-23 lead with 4:54 remaining in the fourth quarter.

Shoot the final gun there and Foles' remarkable season is extended by the kind of fourth-quarter comeback that burnishes quarterbacks' reputations. Instead, the Eagles had to kick off. Darren Sproles took the ball 2 yards inside his own zone and somehow got through the Eagles' first wave of tacklers.

"He broke contain," Williams said. "I'm the safety valve there. I didn't want to dive, because if he steps out of my tackle, it's six points. I just wanted to get the man down, just give our defense a chance to get on the field and make a stop."

[+] EnlargeCary Williams and Darren Sproles
AP Photo/Julio CortezCary Williams' horse collar tackle on Darren Sproles proved costly -- it gave the Saints a short field on the game-winning drive.
Williams went high, tackling Sproles and drawing a penalty for a horse-collar tackle. The Saints got the ball at the Philadelphia 48. They ran the ball, converting three first downs and draining the clock until calling a timeout with three seconds left. There would be no time for Foles and the offense to get that one last chance.

"The game came down to us as a defense making a stop, and we knew it was going to come down to that," linebacker DeMeco Ryans said. "That is what the playoffs are all about. Whoever is on the field last has to stand up and make a play."

But it was all the plays before that created the situation:

Foles held the ball too long and took a sack that turned a makeable Alex Henery field goal try into a 48-yard miss.

Wide receiver Riley Cooper dropped a third-down pass in the third quarter with nothing but green in front of him.

Linebacker Mychal Kendricks slapped the ball from Saints tight end Jimmy Graham's grip, but a replay showed the fumble occurred a moment after Graham's knee touched the ground. Instead of a turnover, the Saints kept the ball and kicked a field goal.

Foles' pass to McCoy on third-and-6 in the red zone picked up 5 yards. Instead of a touchdown and a 21-20 lead, the Eagles kicked a field goal and trailed 20-17.

Those are the little loose threads that the Eagles will pick at when they reflect on this game. It didn't matter that they had exceeded expectations to get to this point. They had a chance to keep playing and they fell short.

"There was a missed opportunity tonight," Eagles owner Jeff Lurie said. "We were a dangerous team."

They will be a different team in 2014. Change is inevitable. All of them know that. And while there is every reason to expect good things from Kelly and Foles in the future, nothing is certain.

"It hurts whenever you lose a game that you know you should have won," center Jason Kelce said. "We all expected to do a lot better in the playoffs. As a player, the careers don't last very long. The opportunities you get in the postseason, you have to try to seize them. We didn't seize the day here."
PHILADELPHIA -- If you’re looking for signs the Eagles can handle New Orleans Saints tight end Jimmy Graham, you won’t find much comfort in Sunday night’s game against the Dallas Cowboys.

Tight end Jason Witten caught 12 passes for 135 yards in a game the Eagles hung on to win, 24-22.
Graham is bigger (6-foot-7), faster and just plain better than Witten at this point in his career. But Witten is probably not the best precedent for gauging the Eagles’ ability to cover Graham. Wide receivers like Brandon Marshall, Larry Fitzgerald and Calvin Johnson are.

"I think Witten had a great game the other night on us, but he's a great player," Eagles defensive coordinator Bill Davis said. "He's a Pro Bowl player and he's going to make those plays. The first game, he didn't have so much but we kind of shifted where we were helping different places, put a little more help on Dez (Bryant). You move it around and great players play great, especially this time of the year when it's playoff football."

In other words, Davis focused on defending Bryant and running back DeMarco Murray. That left Witten more space to operate. The Saints present a number of challenges, but Graham is a lot closer to the top of the list of priorities.

"He's the No. 1 target they have and he's been their most consistent target," Davis said. "He's a big, athletic tight end, catches everything thrown near him. They move him all over the place so it's tough to practice and get a bead on how to help guys on him."

Against those big wide receivers, the Eagles were far from perfect, but they did limit the damage. And that will likely be their approach with Graham. It wouldn’t be surprising if Davis used linebacker Connor Barwin as he did against Fitzgerald and other big wideouts. Barwin would line up at cornerback and jam the receiver, trying to throw him off his route and disrupt his timing. Usually, a defensive back would then pick the receiver up.

Considering how quickly quarterback Drew Brees makes his first read and gets the ball out, that could be enough to get him looking away from Graham at least some of the time.

"It’s a big thing, messing up that timing between he and his receivers," linebacker Mychal Kendricks said. "With that quick release that he has, it’s going to be huge."

New England used cornerback Aqib Talib to follow Graham all over the field. Davis has not used his corners that way all season. Cary Williams is on the right side and Bradley Fletcher is on the left. It seems unlikely Davis would ask them to change up at this late date.

But it wouldn’t be shocking if Barwin, Kendricks and Trent Cole played Graham physically at the line and then a safety or nickel cornerback Brandon Boykin took over. Boykin can run with anyone, but he gives up nine inches to Graham. That requires a different solution.

"Jump," Kendricks said. "You’re playing ball, man. You’ve just got to go for it. That factor’s not going to change. You’ve got to study him and his routes and attack his hands."

Quick Take: Saints at Eagles

December, 30, 2013
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ARLINGTON, Texas -- Three things to know about next Saturday's New Orleans Saints-Philadelphia Eagles wild-card playoff game at Lincoln Financial Field:

1. Unsteady Brees: It has often been said the Saints are a different team at home and on the road, but really, Drew Brees is a different quarterback. In seven home games before Sunday, Brees threw 23 touchdowns and three interceptions. His passer rating was 122.5. On the road, Brees has thrown 12 touchdowns and nine interceptions with a passer rating of 84.8. Brees averaged almost two more yards per attempt at home than on the road.

New Orleans’ defense is actually a bit better on the road. The Saints have eight interceptions and 26 sacks on the road and had three picks and 21 sacks in the Superdome before Sunday.

2. Subplots and storylines: The game will draw huge ratings in Philadelphia, New Orleans and Austin, Texas. Brees and Eagles quarterback Nick Foles went to Austin’s Westlake High School a decade apart. Foles broke Brees’ school records for touchdowns in a season and a career and yards in a game and career. Brees held on to the mark for passing yards in a season.

Saints head coach Sean Payton and assistant head coach Joe Vitt were both assistants on Ray Rhodes’ Eagles staff. Vitt coached linebackers from 1995 to 1998, while Payton coached quarterbacks in ’97 and ’98.

Saints defensive tackle Brodrick Bunkley was the Eagles’ first-round draft pick in 2006. As a rookie, he played against the Saints in a divisional playoff game. The Saints won, 27-24.

Back in the 1980s, Buddy Ryan was head coach of the Eagles. Bill Davis, who had been an assistant on Dick Vermeil’s staff, was a personnel guy. They didn’t exactly get along, and Davis left in 1989.

Almost a quarter-century later, their sons are first-year defensive coordinators for the Saints and Eagles. Rob Ryan has done a dramatic job revamping the Saints' defense. New Orleans was worst in the NFL in yardage and points allowed in 2012. The Saints are fourth in yards and fifth in points under Ryan. Davis has engineered a transition to the 3-4 that has the Eagles playing markedly better defense in the second half of the season. The Eagles have held 10 of their past 11 opponents to 21 or fewer points.

3. Graham cracking: In Jimmy Graham, the Saints have arguably the most dangerous tight end in the league. The Eagles have had mixed success against tight ends this season.

San Diego’s Antonio Gates caught eight passes for 124 yards, but that was early in the season, before Davis’ unit hit its stride. Just last week, Chicago’s Martellus Bennett caught five balls for 85 yards. Tampa Bay’s Timothy Wright caught seven passes for 91 yards.

Going into Sunday night, tight ends have caught an average of 4.3 passes for 52.7 yards per game against the Eagles this season. Jason Witten had 12 catches for 135 yards for the Cowboys on Sunday.

Send a text: Zach Ertz is coming on

December, 20, 2013
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PHILADELPHIA -- Zach Ertz had to shut his phone down. The Philadelphia Eagles rookie tight end had been getting texts and calls all Sunday evening, but it was getting late on the East Coast.

Back at home, on the West Coast, "SportsCenter" was about to come on. Ertz knew that catch would prompt another round of messages from friends too excited to remember the time difference.

[+] EnlargeZach Ertz
Bruce Kluckhohn/USA TODAY SportsEagles tight end Zach Ertz extends over Vikings safety Andrew Sendejo to bring in the ball for a touchdown in their Week 15 game.
"I had to put my phone on silent," Ertz said. "My girlfriend is in town. She always tells me to shut it off, too. It’s fun. Just seeing how many people look up to me at home, it’s kind of neat. I never would have expected that growing up."

Ertz has been coming on for the past month or so, getting more playing time and more balls thrown his way. But his one-handed touchdown catch in Minnesota on Sunday was the kind that gets replayed over and over.

"My mom was probably the most excited about it," Ertz said. "She sent me about four texts after the game, letting me know how sweet it was. That was probably the initial reaction."

Ertz was a basketball player in high school. He fits a trend where big, physical tight ends with basketball skills are making an impact in the NFL.

"I never really played football until my freshman year of high school," Ertz said. "I was a big basketball guy. Going up for a rebound is a lot like going up for a football. There’s a lot of traits that kind of convert from basketball to football.

"You’ve got to be able to attack the ball. You've got guys that are just as fast as you, but you're bigger than them. If you’re able to outjump them, or get leverage on them, you have a good chance to come down with the ball."

The touchdown in Minnesota was a good example. Nick Foles floated a pass toward the back left corner of the end zone. Vikings safety Andrew Sendejo, who at 6-foot-1 gives up 4 inches to Ertz, jumped. As he did, he held Ertz's left arm for just a moment.

Ertz reached out with the right and pulled the ball in like a long rebound.

"Nick has such good touch on the ball when he throws it that it's easy to catch," Ertz said. "Fortunately, I was able to make it with one hand."

Catches like that bring in the texts and phone calls. But it is in the other parts of the game, run blocking and pass protecting and route running, that a young tight end has to do the most work. Ertz is putting the time in and being rewarded with more offensive snaps.

Sunday’s was the first game he was on the field more than veteran Brent Celek, although that was partly due to the game plan's emphasis on throwing rather than running the ball.

"The game has slowed down for me," Ertz said. "I've gotten more comfortable each and every week. Hopefully, that continues. I think you have to be a complete tight end. Tony Gonzalez is a very good blocker; Jason Witten is a very good blocker. Those are kind of the two that stick out. Jimmy Graham is kind of formulating his way into the record books, as well."

The second-round pick from Stanford isn't afraid to chase greatness.

"That’s the goal," he said. "I want to be one of the best tight ends to ever play the game. That's the goal I set out for myself, and I’m going to hold myself to that standard."

Welcome to Mercedes-Benz Superdome

November, 10, 2013
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NEW ORLEANS -- Welcome to the Mercedes-Benz Superdome where the Dallas Cowboys will look to knock off the New Orleans Saints and maintain their one-game lead in the NFC East going into the bye week.

The last time the Cowboys visited they were able to end the Saints’ run at an undefeated season in 2009.

Welcome back: In that 2009 win, DeMarcus Ware had his most memorable game. Six days after leaving a game with his head strapped to a board with a neck injury, Ware was able to play against the Saints. He did not start, but he certainly finished. He sacked Drew Brees twice, including the clincher with a forced fumble in the fourth quarter.

Ware will make his return to the lineup after a three-game absence because of a quadriceps strain, and the Cowboys need him to be a disruptive force. With Jason Hatcher’s status iffy and a line full of no-names, Ware has to get pressure on Brees almost by himself.

He had four sacks in the first six games, but was hampered by stringer and back injuries that limited his playing time and effectiveness. The time off was not only good for his quad, but perhaps for his entire body.

Maximize the possessions: The best way Tony Romo can help a defense that will be under pressure from Brees, Jimmy Graham, Marques Colston and Darren Sproles is to control the ball. But winning the time of possession battle only goes so far.

They also must score touchdowns when available and get field goals at the worst. In their 51-48 loss to the Denver Broncos, the Romo-led offense was able to keep up with eight scoring possessions (six touchdowns, two field goals), but were done in by a fourth-quarter interception.

Scoring early would also help. The Cowboys jumped out to a 14-0 lead in their 2009 win at the Superdome.

Run the ball? The Cowboys ran it a franchise-low nine times last week in their win against the Minnesota Vikings. Take away a Romo scramble and they called only eight runs.

Jason Garrett, Bill Callahan and Romo all say they want to run it more and run it better. They said that at the start of training camp as well.

The Saints have the NFL’s 25th-ranked run defense, giving up 121.3 yards per game on the ground. Coordinator Rob Ryan is so sub-package heavy that the Cowboys could be able to work their running game with a spread look out of a three-wide receiver package.

That would make DeMarco Murray happy.

Cowboys view Jimmy Graham as wideout

November, 8, 2013
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IRVING, Texas -- At 6-foot-7, 265 pounds, the New Orleans Saints list Jimmy Graham as a tight end.

That doesn’t mean the Dallas Cowboys view Graham as one.

Graham
“He’s a wide receiver for sure,” safety Barry Church said. “That’s what we’re going to treat him as in this game.”

Graham leads the Saints with 49 catches for 746 yards and his 10 touchdowns lead the NFL. On Oct. 13, the New England Patriots were able to hold him without a catch by putting cornerback Aqib Talib on him all over the field.

The Cowboys have had cornerback Brandon Carr follow some of their opponents’ top receivers all over the field. The last time was Detroit Lions wide receiver Calvin Johnson, who had 329 receiving yards, but Carr helped limit Demaryius Thomas, Pierre Garcon and DeSean Jackson.

Will the Cowboys be as extreme as New England? Maybe not. Sean Lee said it will be a team defense on Graham.

“I think in a lot of areas we’re going to have to make sure we know where he is on the field and whoever is on him will know, hey, the ball could be coming your way at any point,” Lee said. “And he’s a guy even if you’re on him, Drew Brees can put it in places and he can go to where, hey, he’s covered but he’s not covered.”

Technically Graham is a tight end and other tight ends have given the Cowboys trouble. San Diego Chargers tight end Antonio Gates caught 10 passes for 136 yards, including a 56-yard touchdown. Denver’s Julius Thomas caught nine passes for 122 yards and two touchdowns. Brandon Myers of the New York Giants had seven catches for 66 yards and a touchdown in the season opener. In last week’s game against the Minnesota Vikings, Kyle Rudolph had a 31-yard touchdown catch.

“Against elite quarterbacks we weren’t that good and against pretty good tight ends, they’ve been able to hurt us in the past,” Church said. “Hopefully the game plan we do have set up will switch that around and we’ll have a better day.”
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There might not be a more compelling game on this week’s NFL schedule than the Sunday night showdown between the NFC South-leading New Orleans Saints (6-2) and the NFC East-leading Dallas Cowboys (5-4) at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.

Both teams are jockeying for position in the NFC playoff race. They both offer offensive fireworks, led by the Saints’ Drew Brees and Jimmy Graham and the Cowboys’ Tony Romo and Dez Bryant. They’ve both got something to prove: The Saints will be focused on rebounding from their ugliest performance of the season in a 26-20 loss at the New York Jets; the Cowboys are looking to beat a team with a winning record this season.

There’s even a revenge factor. Saints defensive coordinator Rob Ryan was fired by Cowboys owner Jerry Jones after last season. And he's never been shy about expressing his displeasure with that decision.

ESPN.com’s Saints reporter Mike Triplett and Cowboys reporter Todd Archer break down the matchup.

Triplett: Rob Ryan has been such a huge addition for the Saints. Players love playing for him. He’s putting them in good positions to succeed, and his versatile schemes have worked great for the most part. What wasn’t working for him in Dallas?

Archer: Injuries played a big part in his demise here. He was down six starters at the end of the season and DeMarcus Ware was playing with one arm. He had them competitive. But, honestly, Ryan played a big part in it, too. He tried to junk it up with so many different looks and schemes and packages that the players couldn’t just go play. They had to think. Maybe he felt like he had to junk it up because so many guys were hurt, but he left them unsound a lot of times. He was also way too emotional. He lacked poise when the defense needed it most. I think he was too worried about becoming a head coach. Maybe it has changed down there, or maybe Sean Payton has more control of him.

Is there any reason to think that what happened against the Jets could be the start of something for the Saints?

Triplett: The Saints have had a few nagging issues that all seemed to creep up at once in that Jets loss. Their pass protection has been inconsistent. Their run game has been nonexistent at times. The run defense has been up and down. But I think it was rare for the Saints to have all of those things come up and bite them at once at New York, and they were a little out of their element in some chilly weather against a physical team. Playing at home against the Cowboys seems like a matchup that suits them better. They’re more than happy to engage in a shootout.

What’s the biggest threat the Cowboys pose? I assume Romo and Bryant are involved?

Archer: Since they just don’t want to run the ball, after just eight carries last week (the ninth was a Romo scramble), I’ll go with Romo-to-Bryant, but the Romo-to-Jason Witten combination is pretty good. The Cowboys can throw the ball well even without a running game. They might be happy to get into a shootout as well. The last time the offense was good was a month ago, in their 51-48 shootout loss to Denver. Romo knows Brees is going to score points, so he’ll have to match it. Remember, the last time the Cowboys were at the Superdome they ended New Orleans’ run at perfection by being aggressive early. I can see them trying to do that again.

The Cowboys have allowed four 400-yard passers this season, and I’m penciling in Brees as the fifth. Calvin Johnson went for 329 receiving yards against the Cowboys a couple of weeks ago. What will Graham do?

Triplett: You could have been talking about the Saints when you said they “can throw the ball well even without a running game.” The Saints might try to establish the run a little bit since Sean Payton said that one of his biggest regrets in the Jets loss was that he was too unbalanced. But the Saints are always willing to exploit a shaky pass defense.

Some teams have been defending Graham with top cornerbacks (which worked for the Patriots but not for the Jets). But the Saints have clobbered teams whenever they leave Graham in single coverage. Meanwhile, if defenses sell out to stop Graham, Brees will happily throw to any open man. Two weeks ago, he completed passes to 10 different receivers. And it looks like Darren Sproles and Marques Colston may both be back from injuries Sunday.

Why has Dallas’ pass defense been so bad?

Archer: Mostly, it’s taken time for the players to get a grasp of Monte Kiffin’s scheme and it’s taken time for the new defensive coordinator to know how to best use his players. They have man corners in Brandon Carr, Orlando Scandrick and Morris Claiborne, but they have played a lot of zone and been exposed. There have been just too many creases. The pass rush has not helped, either. They went into the season thinking Anthony Spencer, Jay Ratliff, Jason Hatcher and Ware would be their rocks. Spencer played in one game. Ratliff didn’t play in any before getting cut. Ware has missed the last three but is set to return this week. Hatcher is having a career year with seven sacks. When they have played average quarterbacks they have held up. When they have played elite quarterbacks they have given up 400 yards. For the fantasy-football owners out there, go with Brees Sunday.

You get this every week, but play calling is a big topic here. How have things been different with Payton calling the shots again?

Triplett: You’re right to mention play calling in that question. Most people ask about Payton’s leadership, which is obviously a huge deal; he instills a lot of confidence in this team and seems to press all the right motivational buttons. But his greatest strength is his offensive brain. He’s so good at using a ton of different formations to find and exploit mismatches, usually with Graham and Sproles. The offense hasn’t quite hit its peak like it did in 2011, but it has been excellent at times.

You mentioned Ware coming back. Will he be close to 100 percent? Folks around here won’t soon forget how well he played in 2009, when the Saints didn’t expect him to come back from injury so soon. He singlehandedly spoiled their undefeated season.

Archer: I think so, but he has had a couple of nagging things this season (a stinger and strained back). Missing three weeks might have Ware as fresh as he has ever felt entering Week 10 of a season. They’ll need him to be the Ware of that night in 2009 to succeed. He looked great in training camp, overpowering Tyron Smith in practice all the time, but he hasn’t been as explosive when he has played. What he’ll do is make the other guys around him better because he’ll command so much attention.

Ware is making the move back to defensive end from outside linebacker. How has the Saints' defense transitioned from the 4-3 to Ryan’s 3-4?

Triplett: The transition has been outstanding, in large part because Ryan has adapted his 3-4 to fit the Saints’ personnel (after a ton of injuries this summer, including one to former Cowboys linebacker Victor Butler). As a result, the Saints have actually spent most of the season in nickel and dime defenses with a four-man front. Ryan likes to use three safeties at once in versatile roles, disguising what they do and sending them on occasional blitzes.

End Cameron Jordan and outside linebacker Junior Galette are having breakout seasons as edge rushers. And veteran cornerback Keenan Lewis has been a great pick-up in free agency, too. He’s a bigger, long-armed guy. I wouldn’t be surprised to see him shadow Bryant on Sunday night.

We've hit on Romo, Bryant, Witten and Ware. Any under-the-radar Cowboys who might have a big impact on this game?

Archer: I’ll go with Cole Beasley. He might get stopped by stadium security before the game because he just doesn’t look like an NFL receiver at 5 feet 8 and 180 pounds, but Romo loves the kid. He’s a real threat in the slot. He’s super quick, has a great feel for getting open underneath and knows how not to take a hit. He had six catches last week against Minnesota. The Cowboys’ third-down offense has been pretty bad, but Beasley can take some pressure off Witten and Bryant in the slot.

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Upon Further Review: Cowboys Week 5

October, 7, 2013
10/07/13
2:00
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A review of four hot issues from the Dallas Cowboys' 51-48 loss to the Denver Broncos:

[+] EnlargeCole Beasley
Matthew Emmons/USA TODAY SportsCole Beasley scored the first touchdown of his career and finished with four receptions for 47 yards.
Empty it out: The Cowboys broke out their empty package against the Broncos and had great success. Unoffically, quarterback Tony Romo completed 10 of 13 passes for 235 yards when the Cowboys left the quarterback alone in the backfield. Only one of Romo’s four sacks came in an empty look. That was one of the bigger changes the Cowboys used to attack the Broncos and Romo made it work. Romo’s 79-yard throw to receiver Dez Bryant came out of an empty look, but Bryant’s fumble came when the Cowboys motioned to an empty look. Romo’s shortest completions in the 01 or 02 package were a pair of 10-yarders.

Finding the weakness: As head coach Jason Garrett says, every defense has a weakness and the opponents have found the Cowboys’ in their 4-3 scheme. San Diego completed 20 passes for 238 yards to running backs and tight ends. The Broncos completed 18 passes for 221 yards. They have given up back-to-back 100-yard games to tight ends in Antonio Gates (136) and Julius Thomas (121). With Minnesota’s Kyle Rudolph, New Orleans’ Jimmy Graham, Chicago’s Martellus Bennett and Green Bay’s Jermichael Finley left on the docket, the Cowboys better figure out how to defend the tight end better.

Playing to its level: The Cowboys are realizing just how valuable defensive end Anthony Spencer is to this defense. Perhaps nose tackle Jay Ratliff too. With Spencer out for the year and Ratliff on the physically unable to perform list for at least one more game and possibly a lot longer, the Cowboys' defensive line is getting exposed. Defensive end DeMarcus Ware and defensive tackle Jason Hatcher are the only players in the roles that were set before the season started. The rest of the line was hardly expected to make the roster. For as well as defensive end George Selvie and defensive tackle Nick Hayden have played at times, they were still out of work this summer and not on a team last season respectively. Defensive line coach Rod Marinelli was lauded for his work the first three games, but in the past two games the Cowboys have one sack.

Filling a role: It’s too easy to compare receiver Cole Beasley to Wes Welker. The Cowboys have found a role for Beasley in the slot. Beasley caught four passes for 47 yards and had his first touchdown, a 4-yarder in the fourth quarter. He looked positively Welker-like on his 23-yard catch, working the middle of the field with his quickness on the defensive back. He will be limited as an outside receiver, but his effectiveness underneath and the trust Romo has in him will make Beasley a factor on the offense, especially if the Cowboys continue to roll out their aforementioned empty package.

How you feeling? Cowboys-Saints

December, 23, 2012
12/23/12
10:00
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As the Dallas Cowboys prepare to host the New Orleans Saints at 1 p.m. ET (Noon CT) Sunday, here's one reason for Cowboys fans to feel good about the game and one reason for concern.

Feeling good: After two straight weeks of scrapping for points against tough Cincinnati and Pittsburgh defenses, the Cowboys get a crack at the worst defense in the league. The Saints are 31st in the NFL in run defense, 31st in pass defense and 32nd overall. They did shut out Tampa Bay last week, but that Buccaneers team has lost four in a row, was coming off a loss to the Eagles and appears to be out of gas. The Cowboys should be able to run the ball effectively with DeMarco Murray today, and Tony Romo should have time to find Dez Bryant and the rest of his receivers in the passing game. If there was ever a week in which to expect the Cowboys' offense to appear in sync from the start, it's this week.

Cause for concern: If there's a cause for concern in Dallas these days, it's that the Cowboys' injury-ravaged defense will fall apart one of these weeks. Hasn't happened yet, but Drew Brees and the Saints still can make life miserable for a defense. Dallas needs to make sure Morris Claiborne and Brandon Carr get those wide receivers covered, and somebody in the linebacking corps has to come up with an answer for big, athletic tight end Jimmy Graham.

How you feeling? Eagles-Saints

November, 5, 2012
11/05/12
4:55
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As the Philadelphia Eagles prepare to play the Saints in New Orleans tonight on "Monday Night Football" on ESPN, here's one reason for Eagles fans to feel good and one reason for concern.

Feeling good: The Saints' defense ranks last in the league in yards allowed per game at 474.7. They have allowed more yards through their first seven games than any other team in NFL history. Each team that has played against them this year has put up at least 400 yards of total offense in the game. They rank 31st in the league against the pass (304.6 yards per game) and 32nd against the run (170.1). If there were ever a game in which the Eagles could feel confident about getting on track offensively, tonight's is the game.

Cause for concern: As desperate as the Eagles are for a win that keeps their season alive, the Saints are desperate, too. They are 2-5, and a loss tonight would tie them with Carolina for the worst record in the NFC. Behind Drew Brees, their passing offense ranks first in the league, and as explosive as they are on offense they are a threat to come back in any game. Tight end Jimmy Graham creates mismatches against anyone who tries to defend him, and he's as healthy as he's been all year. The Eagles might be able to score points tonight, but they're going to have their hands full trying not to give up too many.

NFC East Stock Watch

September, 11, 2012
9/11/12
11:49
AM ET
FALLING

[+] EnlargeKevin Ogletree
AP Photo/Julio CortezThe New York Giants secondary allowed the Cowboys and receier Kevin Ogletree to have a field day.
1. Giants' secondary. Tony Romo had a field day in last Wednesday's opener, consistently finding open receivers in the New York Giants' defensive backfield. It wasn't Miles Austin and Dez Bryant doing all the damage, as Laurent Robinson Kevin Ogletree had the biggest statistical day and scored two touchdowns. And it wasn't just backup cornerbacks Michael Coe and Justin Tryon getting burned, as Corey Webster was the victim on two of the most important plays. The Giants could get a boost this weekend if Prince Amukamara returns from injury, but he's far from proven as an NFL cornerback and they will need to play better overall on the back end going forward.

2. Michael Vick, Philadelphia Eagles quarterback. Yes, they won. Yes, Vick engineered the game-winning drive (something he didn't do all of last year). But four interceptions in the season opener after an offseason in which you promised everyone from King of Prussia on up to the Mars Rover that you were a new man? It's possible Vick was rusty, but if that's the case he's going to have to shake off the rust extremely soon and show proof of his offseason claims about a newfound devotion to study and detail. We didn't see much of that Sunday.

3. Roy Helu and Evan Royster, Washington Redskins running backs. This is more about the "rising" of rookie sixth-round pick Alfred Morris, who was Washington's starting running back and carried the ball 28 times for 96 yards and two touchdowns. No other Redskins running back got more than two carries in the game. And while Helu still looks as though he could be an option here and there on third downs and in the passing game, for right now this appears to be Morris' job. The Redskins have health concerns about the other two backs, and Morris has played well enough to earn the carries.

RISING

1. Cowboys' defense. The Dallas Cowboys believe they would have won the NFC East last year if they'd been able to cover receivers better, so they spent the bulk of their offseason resources on cornerbacks Brandon Carr and Morris Claiborne. In the season opener against the Giants, the performance of the Dallas secondary was critical. Not only did they get the Giants' excellent receivers covered with the combination of Carr, Claiborne and Orlando Scandrick, but safeties Barry Church and Gerald Sensabaugh both looked quick and aggressive and made smart plays on the ball. The return of cornerback Mike Jenkins from injury, which could come as soon as this Sunday's game in Seattle, will only deepen a position group that the Cowboys believe they have turned from a crippling weakness into a strength.

2. Redskins' secondary. Lost amid the RG3 hype Sunday was the way the Washington Redskins' defensive backs performed, largely in man coverage. The Redskins don't usually like to isolate their cornerbacks on opposing wide receivers, but a sudden lack of depth at safety and the importance of devoting extra coverage to Saints tight end Jimmy Graham made it a necessity. Josh Wilson, Cedric Griffin and DeAngelo Hall were up to the task and covered the New Orleans receivers well all day while the linebackers and safeties did their best to try and slow down Graham. A perceived weakness of the team in the preseason, the secondary deserves praise for its effort in the opener.

3. Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, Eagles cornerback. The Eagles' defense was strong overall, and the performances of linebackers DeMeco Ryans and Mychal Kendricks as well as safeties Nate Allen and Kurt Coleman are all worthy of mention. But Rodgers-Cromartie is a player on whom lots of folks have their eye in Philadelphia this year. Playing the outside cornerback spot opposite Nnamdi Asomugha, Rodgers-Cromartie is going to be tested by opposing quarterbacks. The two interceptions he made Sunday should make them at least think twice.

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