In their last two wins, the Eagles had trouble covering tight ends. That's a troublesome trend as they prepare for Jimmy Graham in Saturday's wild-card playoff game against the New Orleans Saints.
Graham finished the season with the most receiving touchdowns in the NFL (16) and was the only tight end to top 1,000 receiving yards. Graham lines up on the line, in the slot, and split wide. Linebackers, safeties, and cornerbacks have attempted to cover him. Few have succeeded.
"He's not even a tight end," Eagles safety Earl Wolff said. "He's a real big receiver."
Whatever position is next to Graham's name on the roster, he's the Saints' best receiver and might be the most dangerous skill position player the Eagles have faced this season other than Lions receiver Calvin Johnson.
"He's the No. 1 target they have and he's been their most consistent target," Eagles defensive coordinator Bill Davis said. "(Graham) catches everything thrown near him. They move him all over the place, so it's tough to practice and get a beat on how to help guys on him."
The 6-foot-7, 265-pound Graham and did not start playing football at the University of Miami until he finished four seasons of college basketball. His basketball pedigree shows his athleticism, and he has developed into the best pass-catching tight end in the NFL during his four seasons with the Saints.
Graham finished with 86 receptions for 1,215 yards this season. In the last three seasons, Graham has averaged 90 catches for 1,169 yards and 12 touchdowns, leading all players in those categories.
The Eagles defense posted relatively impressive statistics against tight ends for most of 2013 before struggling during the last two weeks. Cowboys tight end Jason Witten hurt the Eagles with 12 catches for 135 yards on Sunday. Bears tight end Martellus Bennett totaled five catches for 85 yards on Dec. 22.
Opposing tight ends averaged 4.8 catches for 58.9 yards and 0.2 touchdowns per game against the Eagles this season. The Eagles ranked 15th in the NFL in catches allowed to tight ends, 10th in yardage. They allowed fewer touchdowns than all but one team.
But the Eagles have faced few of the NFL's elite tight ends. San Diego's Antonio Gates finished with eight catches for 124 yards against them on Sept. 15. In a Sept. 29 game against Denver's Julius Thomas and an Oct. 20 game against Witten, the Eagles held the tight ends each to four catches and to fewer than 50 receiving yards.
"I think we have been good at times and struggled at times," Davis said."Like anything, the talent level of the tight end that's coming at you, how much I help on the tight end with a call or I don't, depending on how many weapons they have or the situation ... Sometimes I give a lot of help, sometimes I don't, and I think it's a moving target."
Linebacker Mychal Kendricks has often drawn tight ends in coverage this season. Kendricks is listed at 6 feet tall and Graham's size could be a potential mismatch, although that's the case with most of his opponents.
"That factor isn't going to change," Kendricks said. "You've got to study and know what his routes are, know what he's going to be getting, and attack his hands. Try to separate him from the ball."
Kendricks has allowed catches on 82 percent of the passes thrown on his direction, according to the website Pro Football Focus. That's the ninth-highest percentage among NFL inside linebackers.
The Eagles could try a safety on Graham, but that would take the player away from helping over the top. Nate Allen has been a steady defender for the Eagles. There is instability at the other spot. Patrick Chung is struggling and allowed a critical fourth-quarter touchdown against the Cowboys. Wolff has missed five of the last six games with a knee injury, although he is optimistic that he will return on Saturday.
The New England Patriots were successful using cornerback Aqib Talib help to keep Graham to zero catches on Oct. 13. Graham was also dealing with an ankle injury that afternoon. And the Eagles might not have a player with Talib's skill set.
That Patriots game was Graham's only one without a catch this season. That would be an unrealistic goal for the Eagles, but they need to play better against Graham than they did against the last two tight ends they saw.
"We know the challenge with Jimmy Graham coming in here," coach Chip Kelly said, "but I'm confident (Davis) and our defensive staff will have a plan together for him."
(c)2013 The Philadelphia Inquirer
Visit The Philadelphia Inquirer at www.philly.com
Distributed by MCT Information Services