Key matchup: Smith vs. Graham

Harrison Smith won’t be the only Viking covering Jimmy Graham, but he will be asked to stop the versatile tight end at key times.

There are plenty of tight ends in the NFL that are dangerous downfield threats, but there is only one who is such a playmaker that, when he was tagged as a franchise player, he and his agent fought to have him designated for wide receiver money. Few players have the unique skillset and the dynamic playmaking ability that Jimmy Graham possess, making the downfield competition between Graham and Vikings safety Harrison Smith this week’s key matchup.

There is no denying that Graham is the pre-eminent tight end in the NFL. There are other tight ends that get a lot of attention from defenses, like Rob Gronkowski, Julius Thomas and Vernon Davis, but the production numbers of Graham are so pronounced that many would have given him the wide receiver franchise tag.

Over his last 19 games, Graham has caught 19 touchdowns. Since the start of the 2013 season, Graham has played in 18 games. In those, he has five or more receptions in 12 of them, 70 or more receiving yards in 10, 100 yards or more in seven, at least one touchdown in 12 and two or more TDs in six of them.

Those are Megatron-style numbers. But at least with Calvin Johnson, he is covered by a team’s best cornerback. Graham requires coverage from linebackers on short routes and safeties on deep routes. He is at his most dangerous deep down the field and that is where Drew Brees likes to find him. In that 18-game span, he has caught at least one pass of more than 20 yards in 13 of them. Of those 13 games, he has at least one touchdown in 11 of them, which is why he is as difficult a receiver to cover as anyone in the NFL.

In the new-look Vikings defense, Harrison Smith is being asked to do several things. He blitzes, charges up in run support, plays the equivalent of a nickel cornerback and is in charge of taking on receivers in between the hash marks deep down the field. More times than not, that entails covering a wide receiver. Graham is an exception to that rule.

Smith enjoys the multi-faceted role he plays in the defense and is looking forward to the challenge, but admitted that Graham won’t be traveling to Smith Island. There’s going to be group involvement with trying to limit Graham.

“They use him in a lot of different ways,” Smith said. “I’ll be dealing with him downfield. The linebackers will take him on the short routes. With a guy like that, it’s a collaborative effort. I think we’ll all be involved at some point – the corners, the safeties, the linebackers. They use him a lot and in a lot of different ways.”

While Graham will be part of the assignment sheet for almost all of the back seven defenders at some point or another, when the Saints look for the home run-style kill shot deep down the middle of the field, it will predominantly Smith who will draw the assignment to prevent Graham from making the kind of back-breaking play that has historically been followed up with a dunk on the goal post.

The Vikings aren’t going to shut down Graham. Nobody does. The goal is to contain him and force him to catch short passes in which defenders can swarm around him. The Saints are going to attempt to make big plays down the field with Graham as the target. Don’t be surprised if Brees takes at least four or five deep shots Graham’s way. The Vikings are looking to shut down that element of the Saints offensive game plan, which will make the one-on-one battles between Smith and Graham this week’s matchup to watch.

John Holler has been writing about the Vikings for more than a decade for Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this topic on our message boards. To become a subscriber to the Viking Update web site or magazine, click here.

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