- Mike Triplett, ESPN Staff Writer
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The New Orleans Saints' biggest game of the season to date deserves the season’s biggest What 2 Watch 4. This is Part 1 of 4 as we count down toward the Saints’ “Monday Night Football” showdown at the Seattle Seahawks.
Two of the NFL’s elite players may duel head to head tonight. Or maybe not. It depends on whether the Seahawks decide to use their best cover cornerback, Richard Sherman, on the Saints’ most dangerous weapon, tight end Jimmy Graham.
Defenses have tried that approach a few times this season, to varying degrees of success. New England Patriots cornerback Aqib Talib did a great job against Graham in Week 6, which was a big reason Graham finished with zero catches in that game. And Sherman (6-foot-3, 195 pounds) is a big, physical cornerback who might have the skill set to pull off the assignment.
But the Seahawks’ loaded defense also has plenty of talent at the safety and linebacker positions. So they may experiment with a few different options against Graham.
Either way, Graham said he knows teams will always have someone “all over me.”
“More or less, I just look at it across the board and learn everyone’s tendencies, everyone’s weaknesses, everyone’s strengths,” said Graham, who said he has been studying defenses more than ever this year because of the diversity he’s seen in teams’ approaches from week to week. “There’s many times in a game when I’ll have any one of the corners or safeties or linebackers on me split out in the slot or at the tight end position. For me, it’s all around getting a feel for what everyone does best and try to use that to my advantage.”
Graham said he can glean some tips from the way defenses cover receiving tight ends, like Tony Gonzalez and Rob Gronkowski. But Graham said he also spends a lot of time watching the way teams defend some of the league’s top big receivers -- like Calvin Johnson and Andre Johnson. And he has “most definitely” seen defenses approach him the same way.
“You get hints on how they guard Gonzalez or Gronk. But Gronk, he’s at the true tight end position a lot, and me, I’m lined up at the receiver position a lot,” Graham said. “So across the board I watch a lot of big-play receivers as well, the Lions and the Texans, trying to see how guys are playing those guys.
“I feel like [in the past] I could be split out and run my sluggos or my seam routes, and there was no help behind them. But you’ll see now even looks where we have Cover 1 where a safety will cheat over my way,” Graham said. “Safeties used to not pay attention to me, but now it looks like they’re instantly sprinting back to cover the seam route.”
Saints coach Sean Payton obviously pays attention to all of those wrinkles as well.
“A lot,” said Payton, who has always been a master at lining up in a variety of formations early in the game to learn a defense’s tendencies.
That tactic is probably even more useful when it comes to a unique weapon like Graham. And if a defense goes overboard in trying to defend Graham, then Payton and quarterback Drew Brees have always shown a great willingness to exploit the other options being left open.
“There’s usually a mix of personnel to try and see [if] we are getting nickel or are we getting base and what are the matchups,” Payton said. “I think that’s pretty significant as to what we can gather early in the game and pay attention to how they’re treating Darren Sproles or how they’re treating certain personnel groupings.
“There are a lot of ways to cover certain people and hopefully we have enough variation and flexibility where we are able to adjust and see how they’re playing the matchups.”