New Orleans Saints coach Sean Payton had a great line Monday when asked if it’s a concern that other NFL teams will copy the New England Patriots’ formula for shutting down tight end Jimmy Graham during the Saints’ 30-27 loss on Sunday.
“Well, if someone has Aqib Talib, it is,” Payton cracked, crediting the Patriots’ standout cornerback for his physical coverage against Graham in many one-on-one matchups.
The Patriots’ success against the Saints passing game went beyond just Talib’s performance, though.
As ESPN analyst Trent Dilfer pointed out, the Patriots got physical with all of the Saints’ receivers, both chipping them at the line of scrimmage and playing bump-and-run coverage to disrupt their routes. Not only did Graham have zero catches, but receiver Marques Colston was also held to one catch for 11 yards. And quarterback Drew Brees completed just 17 of 36 passes for 236 yards.
“The New England Patriots did what you’ve been asking for forever with a high-powered offense. They got hands on receivers,” Dilfer said to fellow analyst Tom Jackson during a postgame breakdown on SportsCenter. “And a lot’s going to be talked about Jimmy Graham, and him not having a productive day. But they did it to all of them. They disrupted this high-flying offense of the New Orleans Saints by disrupting them at the line of scrimmage. And challenging the rules, quite frankly. I mean, some of these were five, six, seven, eight yards deep. But that’s alright. They’re only going to throw [penalty flags] so many times. Let’s see what the refs are calling today, let’s play aggressive.
“And they really were able to get in the Saints’ head in the passing game. Now, to the Saints’ credit, they get back in the game because they were able to run the football well in the second half. Then terrific Tom [Brady] at the end pulls one out of his hat and wins the football game.”
That physical approach has always been one of the most effective ways for defenses to slow down the Saints’ potent passing offense. The Carolina Panthers, in particular, used to have similar success against the Saints when former coach John Fox had big, physical defensive backs at his disposal.
The good news for the Saints, though, is that it’s easier said than done.
Every man in coverage has to pull off his individual assignment for that approach to work. And the Saints usually feast on mismatches when other weapons like Colston or running back Darren Sproles are left in man-to-man coverage.
Brees said the biggest problem on Sunday was that, “We just weren’t real efficient.”
“I think that, really, if teams are bound and determined to take away Jimmy Graham, then there are plenty of other guys that can beat ‘em,” Brees said. “And Jimmy’s gonna make his plays each and every game. And I think it’s on us to find creative ways to get him in the positions we want him in order to make those plays.
“I think we all just kinda had not our best performance. … There were guys open at times, and we just didn’t find ‘em. So that’s on me, that’s on all of us.”
Brees and Payton pointed out that other guys did get open at times. Tight end Benjamin Watson caught three passes for 61 yards. Rookie receiver Kenny Stills made an outstanding 34-yard touchdown catch in the fourth quarter. And second-year running back Travaris Cadet scored on a 3-yard pass in the first quarter when he got free underneath when Graham cleared out traffic.
The Saints have arguably done the best job of any offense in the NFL at “finding the open man” ever since Payton and Brees arrived in 2006.
They just got bumped off their usual course on Sunday.