49ers-Saints matchup No. 3: 49ers defense vs. Jimmy Graham
Jimmy Graham’s size and strength make for a difficult matchup for cornerbacks. (AP)
Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman will try to be physical with Jimmy Graham whenever he comes across the middle. (USATSI)
Programming note: Watch Friday’s 49ers press conference with Jim Harbaugh streaming live right here at 12:45 p.m.
Editor's note: This is the first part in a series that spotlights three 49ers-Saints matchups to watch Sunday, 1:25 p.m., at the Superdome.
49ers defense vs. Saints TE Jimmy Graham
Tale of the tape
49ers defense: Ranked sixth overall in NFL, ninth against pass
Graham (80): 6 foot 7, 265 pounds, fourth season, Miami (Fla.)
The task of covering Jimmy Graham is no one-man job.
In fact, Graham serves the roles of several individuals on the New Orleans Saints offense.
On his pass routes, Graham has lined up in the slot 48.9 percent of the time and at wide receiver 32.1 percent. In figures tabulated by Pro Football Focus, Graham has been at his listed position of tight end on just 19 percent of snaps.
While 49ers linebacker Patrick Willis generally is entrusted with covering another team’s top tight end, Graham will see a little bit of everybody on the 49ers’ defense.
One of the fundamental questions facing 49ers defensive coordinator Vic Fangio is whether to treat Graham as if he is a wide receiver every time he steps into the Saints huddle.
“He’s their leading receiver,” Fangio said. “And he’ll line up as a receiver a lot, too. He’s not just a tight end. So he’s a tough matchup with his size and speed and catch radius. And him and (Drew) Brees have some good karma going, and Brees likes to throw to him.”
Graham leads the Saints with 54 receptions for 805 yards and 10 touchdowns.
The former college basketball player will likely see some of 49ers cornerback Carlos Rogers in the slot. When he’s out wide, he could also be covered by cornerbacks Tarell Brown or Tramaine Brock. But Graham’s size and strength make for a difficult matchup for cornerbacks.
The 49ers could drop a safety on him. Donte Whitner has put together a good season in coverage, and Eric Reid still must pass concussion protocol to be cleared to play in Sunday’s game. But safeties have a difficult time with Graham because of his route-running ability.
Willis and NaVorro Bowman might have occasional underneath assignments against Graham. The pair of All-Pro inside linebackers will try to be physical with Graham whenever he comes across the middle. But linebackers typically struggle to keep up due to Graham’s speed advantage. And his height gives him the ability to make plays on the ball over most linebackers.
Graham was has been limited by a partially torn plantar fascia in his left foot since Week 6. He played on just 33 of the Saints’ 83 snaps Sunday against the Dallas Cowboys and still caught five passes for 59 yards It did not impact the Saints too much, as they set an NFL record with 40 first downs in a 49-17 victory.
"They just want to make sure that they're handling me the right way," Graham said. "They really look to limit me at times. You know, I've got some issues. But you know, everyone does. So it's going be like that from week to week.”