The Carolina Panthers don’t think it’s sound strategy to keep Saints star tight end Jimmy Graham’s numbers down at all costs.
After all, New Orleans has too many other weapons on the roster that can inflict too much damage, as the Pittsburgh Steelers learned when they successfully prioritized shutting out Graham but nonetheless gave up five touchdowns in a 35-32 loss at home to the Saints on Sunday, Carolina coach Ron Rivera and linebacker Luke Kuechly said on a conference call Wednesday.
At the same time, four days out from visiting the NFC South rival Saints (5-7) after losing to them by 18 points in Charlotte, North Carolina, on Oct. 30, the Panthers realize Graham is too talented to treat as if he were just any other player. And few if any dilemmas at the moment are bigger for a 3-8-1 team that’s given up the fourth-most points in the NFL and hasn’t won since Oct. 5.
“That’s the fine line — you’ve got to be able to match up with the other guys,” said Rivera, who guided the Panthers to the NFC South title and a first-round bye in the playoffs in 2013. “If you say, ‘We’re going to take (Graham) out of the game and make everybody else beat you, and the other guys beat you, then you didn’t have good enough matchups.”
Conventional thinking went that the team that virtually erased Graham as an option for the Saints beat New Orleans. During October last year, the Saints lost at New England after the Patriots kept Graham from registering even a single catch. Defending Super Bowl champion Seattle then eliminated the Saints from the playoffs in January after holding Graham to one catch for 8 yards with 24 seconds left in a game New Orleans lost 23-15. And, while nursing a shoulder injury, Graham had zero catches in a loss at Detroit on Oct. 19.
Nonetheless, Graham earned Associated Press first-team All-Pro honors last season. He signed a four-year, $40 million contract that gave him the highest annual salary ever for an NFL tight end. And he entered the Saints’ game at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh leading his team in catches (65), receiving yards (670) and touchdown grabs (nine).
The Steelers appeared ready to sacrifice whatever necessary to halt Graham. They accosted him at the line of scrimmage and within the legal bump zone, and further up the field they bracketed him with both a safety and a linebacker or cornerback.
Pittsburgh’s plan worked to a degree. Graham had no catches, and he wasn’t even targeted for a pass. But the Steelers essentially paid for that accomplishment with a loss.
Second-year Saints receiver Kenny Stills had a career-high 162 receiving yards as well as a touchdown on five catches. Running back Mark Ingram rushed for 122 yards, his second-highest total on the ground this season. Saints quarterback Drew Brees threw three of his five TDs to less-heralded players such as receiver Nick Toon, fullback Erik Lorig and No. 2 tight end Ben Watson that were overlooked by Pittsburgh. He threw another score to veteran Marques Colston, who possesses all of the franchise’s major receiving records but doesn’t always attract the fanfare Graham does.
The Steelers made sure Graham was basically unavailable. But they overexposed themselves in too many areas.
Panthers linebacker Luke Kuechly claimed he hadn’t watched the film of the Saints-Steelers game when he talked to New Orleans sportswriters Wednesday. But he did not proclaim himself a believer in the theory some teams have that shutting down Graham is more than half the battle when it comes to beating the Saints.
“I don’t think they’re a team that has one guy — obviously, Jimmy’s a great player, but I think Colston and Stills and those guys do a good job,” said Kuechly, the league’s 2013 Defensive Player of the Year and 2012 Defensive Rookie of the Year. “I don’t think you can just concentrate on ... Jimmy because Colston’s got a proven track record that he can catch a bunch of passes ... and I think Stills is one of those guys that can burn you — he’s got speed, (and) he can catch the ball.”
Therefore, judging from Rivera’s voice, it’d be a shock if the Panthers took any pages out of the Steelers’ defensive game plan for the Saints before flying to New Orleans.
“That’s the thing about what they have in New Orleans — if you try to take one guy away, the other guys are going to step up,” Rivera said. “You saw it.”