Drew Brees caused some ripples this offseason when he proclaimed the Saints offense would be fine with or without Jimmy Graham.
The Saints quarterback pointed to his cache of weapons and the numbers he posted over the previous eight seasons to support his argument, though he admitted the team was better with the All-Pro on the field.
Brees’ statement could soon be put to the test. Graham suffered a shoulder sprain during a Week 5 win over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and could miss at least the next two games against the Detroit Lions and Green Bay Packers.
The initial feeling is that the Saints offense will not change dramatically without Graham on the field. The team will likely continue to operate out of the same sets and simply bump Ben Watson and Josh Hill up the depth chart. Signed last week, tight end Tom Crabtree could also figure into the mix.
After Graham was knocked out of action early in the first half against Tampa Bay, the Saints did not dramatically alter their game plan. Other players were asked to step up, and the show continued as scripted. The Saints expect the same against the Lions if needed.
“No matter what guy’s in there, the game plan is the game plan,” Watson said. “You just stick with it.”
What will change is how defenses choose to cover the Saints if Graham is held out. Against Tampa Bay two weeks ago, the Buccaneers used a linebacker to match up with Graham on only two of his first-quarter snaps.
Cornerback Alterraun Verner served as the main man in coverage against Graham, with safety Mark Barron also lining up across from him a number of times. There were also a handful of instances when the Bucs bracketed Graham with two players.
After Graham was injured, Tampa Bay often used linebackers to cover Hill and Watson. Brees was able to exploit those matchups, connecting with the two tight ends eight times for a combined 79 yards; but things became more difficult for the rest of the offense.
With Graham on the field in the first quarter, Brees was 9-of-14 (64 percent) for 118 yards. He hit on 60 percent of his next 43 passes for 253 yards over next three quarters and an overtime period. The difference was that the safeties were freed up to roam the field, and Verner was allowed to match up with a wide receiver, which took away the mismatches and passing lanes Graham helped create.
“Anytime you take an elite player — and I use that term very guarded, or not often — obviously that changes things,” coach Sean Payton said when answering a question about Lions wide receiver Calvin Johnson, who is battling an ankle injury. “It would be the same thing with regards to Jimmy. When you take a specific player like him out of the game, it changes things. We know each (time), you’re going to have to make those adjustments.”
Some of the issues that presented themselves the last time New Orleans was on the field might not exist when the team travels to Detroit to face the Lions Sunday. The Saints were forced to adjust on the fly and had to smear some putty over the massive hole that suddenly appeared when Graham’s shoulder gave out.
Coming off the open week, Payton and offensive coordinator Pete Carmichael have had ample time to concoct a strategy to get through the next few weeks. There’s no way to replace Graham, whose only peer at his position might be New England’s Rob Gronkowski. But there could be ways to mask the deficiency.
The Saints will have to find ways to scheme around Graham’s absence.
But on a more rudimentary level, it will not matter if a receiving corps that has accounted for only 47 percent of New Orleans passing yards does not step up.
And when looking at that group, one of the glaring issues has been the play of Marques Colston, who has dropped four passes this season, and Robert Meachem, who has 60 receiving yards.
And New Orleans will also have to find a way to get better production over the middle. Brees has completed 61 passes that have traveled up to 20 yards through the air in this portion of the field, not counting passes thrown behind the line of scrimmage. Graham has caught 20 of those passes. No one else has eclipsed 10 catches.
It will take a team effort to fill those voids. It likely won’t fall squarely on the receivers or the tight ends. The Saints are smart enough to know that one player can’t be plugged into Graham’s role and asked to do his job.
“I don’t think it affects the receivers, Jimmy being out, other than it gives them more opportunities. I mean, Jimmy’s balls have to go somewhere,” Brees said. “Listen, it’s Ben Watson, that’s Josh Hill, the tight ends as a whole. And those guys are certainly capable and will do a great job, I’ve got so much confidence in them.”
The question is whether or not those players can fill that void well enough to keep this team afloat if Graham misses time.