TEMPE, Ariz. — Week 1 in St. Louis, the Arizona Cardinals’ defense seemed helpless as Rams tight end Jared Cook torched them for 141 yards and two touchdowns on seven receptions.
And had it not been for a great play by Tyrann Mathieu, it may have been three touchdowns.
Sunday, when the Cardinals battle the New Orleans Saints, they’ll be squaring off against an even better tight end than Cook.
The Saints’ Jimmy Graham has established himself as the premier pass catching threat at the position, hauling in a combined 184 catches for 2,292 yards and 20 touchdowns in 2011 and 2012.
The one-time Pro Bowler has caught 14 passes for 224 yards and two scores this season, and combines with quarterback Drew Brees to form one of the most dynamic and dangerous duos in the NFL.
So, how do you go about stopping a 6-foot-7, 260-pound player who runs like a wide receiver?
“Don’t let him in the stadium,” Cardinals defensive coordinator Todd Bowles said, with a chuckle. “You don’t slow him down. He’s a great player.
“Try to play sound, fundamental defense, mix it up a little bit and hope for him to have a bad day.”
Sounds about right.
Truth is, Graham is exactly the type of player who figures to give the Cardinals fits, at least until Pro Bowl linebacker Daryl Washington returns from his four-game suspension.
That will not happen for another couple of weeks, though, which means part of the responsibility for trying to contain Graham will fall on Karlos Dansby.
“His ability to stretch the field, catch jump balls in the red zone, get open,” Dansby said of what Graham brings to the table. “He’s a solid tight end. His ability to catch the ball — his range. Drew can just throw it in certain areas, and with his range he’s able to get his hands on the ball and catch it.”
The key to stopping Graham, Dansby said, lies largely with the pass rush. Get to Brees and take away his passing lanes, and you have a chance. It’s the same formula the team used last week against Detroit, when it limited Lions receiver Calvin Johnson to just two catches and 20 yards in the second half of Arizona’s 25-21 win.
“We were able to play tighter coverage and give those guys an opportunity to get to the quarterback,” Dansby said. “That’s what we’ve got to do this week, also, is play with tighter coverage and give our D-line an opportunity to get to the quarterback.”
The Cardinals have registered just one sack through two games this season, though Bowles said he was very pleased with the amount of pressure the Cardinals got on Detroit’s Matthew Stafford. Sacks are nice, but pressuring the QB into poor throws is a nice consolation prize.
But with the Saints, that’s easier said than done, and failure to pressure Brees could result in some fireworks for the home team.
“Drew’s been a proven quarterback for years in this league, he does a hell of a job,” Cardinals cornerback Jerraud Powers said. “He’s got a good supporting cast in Jimmy Graham and (Marques) Colston and all those guys are still doing what they’ve been doing, and that’s making plays.
“We’re just going to have to make sure we don’t have any mistakes against Drew because he’s the type of quarterback when you make a mistake, he’s going to spot it out and that’s going to result in big plays because their offense is so explosive.”