Jimmy Graham may have earned more kudos with his gameday performances during the past two weeks than he did during last season’s All-Pro campaign.
Playing with an ailing shoulder, Graham has integrated himself back into the Saints offense, catching 12 passes for 142 yards and two touchdowns.
He injured his shoulder during the first quarter of Week 5’s overtime win against Tampa Bay then after the bye week, missed the following game at Detroit.
He returned for games against Green Bay and at Carolina.
Graham has caught 46 passes this season for 518 yards (11.3 yards per catch) and five scores.
“He is a tough guy,” said Saints quarterback Drew Brees. He has thrown 46 TD passes to Graham, making them the third-most prolific quarterback-tight end scoring combination in NFL history.
“He wants to be there for everybody. He’s the ultimate team guy.”
On Wednesday, Graham participated in full practice.
Graham’s involvement in the NFL’s second-ranked passing offense gives opposing defense one more receiving threat to worry about, creating openings for other receivers — not to mention Graham’s ability to utilize his 6-foot-6 frame and former college basketball rebounding ability to outjump smaller defensive backs and outmaneuver heftier linebackers.
“Most guys, with that kind of injury, they’re going to stay on the bench or they’re not going to play,” middle linebacker Curtis Lofton said. “But Jimmy puts all stats aside. He wants to be out there. He’s a true competitor. You see him starting to be his old self again, so that’s good for us. Hopefully he continues to heal.”
Breakdowns costly to 49ers
San Francisco quarterback Colin Kaepernick is known for his dual-threat abilities. His 49ers offensive line is credited as one of the best in the NFL. Both facts make it hard to understand Sunday’s pass protection breakdowns during a 13-10 loss against St. Louis. The Rams push led to eight sacks, a season high allowed for San Francisco (4-4), which on Sunday, plays the Saints (4-4) at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.
Saints strong safety Kenny Vaccaro has an answer.
“I’m more surprised with that (offensive) line,” Vaccaro said. “They have a good O-line. Across the table, they have good players, Pro Bowl players.”
As good as the group is, the 49ers offensive line was beat more often on one-on-one matchups than blitzes, a fact which speaks more to strength than scheme.
The Saints, meanwhile, have spent the past two games facing two quarterbacks with scrambling abilities: Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers (two rushes, 21 yards) and Cam Newton (7-43), both of whom scored on short runs in losing efforts.
Newton’s 10-yard TD run in the third quarter vexed the Saints defense, which otherwise, did a solid job of containing his running antics.
This season, Kaepernick (1,956 passing yards, 12 TDs, five interceptions) has been sacked 27 times. He’s also rushed 54 times for 274 yards. He has yet to score on a rush.
Newton wants to stay in the pocket and throw, said Saints outside linebacker Junior Galette, while Kaepernick is ready to run if he sees a running lane.
“The Rams were pressing a lot, even on first down,” Galette said. “He got a lot of things thrown in his face.”
Saints coach Sean Payton agreed, calling Kaeperpick’s sack trouble “the exception,” to his normal play.
Payton: “He can move and escape, he can extend plays.”
Rookie center to start for 49ers
Rookie center Marcus Martin is expected to start his second NFL game Sunday when the 49ers face the Saints. Martin started last Sunday’s loss to St. Louis, allowing two sacks.
Martin was drafted out of Southern California in the third round of the NFL draft. As one of the higher-ranked centers coming out of the draft, he was considered an option for the Saints which needed this offseason to replace former starter Brian de le Puente, who left for the Chicago Bears.
The Saints passed on Martin in the second round, opting for second-year pro Tim Lelito and former Saints starting center Jonathan Goodwin (2006-10), who was re-signed after three seasons in San Francisco.
Brees getting more help
The full offensive burden is off of Brees, he said. He’s back to sharing it.
The Saints quarterback said Mark Ingram’s re-established running exploits has helped to spread the offensive heroics, a constant source (rightly or not) of public opinion about Brees’ rough offensive stretches.
During wins against Green Bay and at Carolina, Ingram has rushed for a combined 272 yards and three TDs. During the same span, Brees has completed 77 percent of his passes for 608 yards and four TDs.
“You say a quarterback’s best friend is a defense and a great run game,” Brees said. “Any time you can run the football effectively, it opens up things in the passing game because if you’re getting 4, 5 or more (yards) a pop, you run the football a lot and it’s going to be a long day for the defense. So at some point they have to do something to stop that and typically, what that does is it opens up opportunities on the perimeter with one-on-one coverage with receivers and opportunities to push the ball down the field.”
Ingram’s rushing load may have to continue: Running backs Pierre Thomas (ribs/shoulder) and Khiry Robinson (arm) missed Wednesday’s practice. The duo has missed the past two games.
Ingram (shoulder) was also limited.
Payton: ‘A ton of work’ ahead
Ask Payton about San Francisco’s troubles this season and he’ll say the Saints aren’t any better.
“We’ve won the last two games,” Payton said. “We’ve been on longer winning streaks than that. We’re not at that point yet. Hopefully we can get to that point. But, we still have a ton of work we need to do to get to that point.
“Hey, we’re desperate too. One team is going to go to 4-5 while the other one goes to 5-4.”
If the Saints have an advantage, it’s this: they play their next three games (San Francisco, Cincinnati, Baltimore) at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome where the franchise is undefeated this season.
“The best teams win in November,” White said. “We’ve got three at home and hopefully, we can get these.
“The most desperate team will win Sunday.”
Along with Thomas and Robinson, middle linebacker David Hawthorne (hand) and right tackle Zach Strief (chest) did not practice. Goodwin (knee/ankle), who has missed the last two games, was limited.