After a disappointing campaign in 2012, the New Orleans Saints are off and running in 2013.
With a crucial opening week victory at home over the rival Atlanta Falcons, followed by an important road win against divisional foe Tampa Bay, the Saints are out of the gate to a 2-0 start.
But over the course of an NFL season, each week presents a unique challenge. This week's opposition—the Arizona Cardinals—are indeed challenging, and they possess a host of potent offensive weapons.
With supremely talented wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald manning the outside, and highly experienced signal-caller Carson Palmer under center, the Cardinals offense is a legitimate threat to score from anywhere on the field. Fitzgerald is paired with capable second-year receiver Michael Floyd, who could see a more active role if Fitzgerald's nagging hamstring injury slows him down.
Either way, Arizona will try to score quickly with an aggressive downfield passing attack. It's therefore essential that quarterback Drew Brees and the Saints offense control the clock with long drives that result in points.
At 6'7", athletic tight end Jimmy Graham is an ideal target, and provides Brees with his most viable option to move the chains in passing situations.
With 10 catches for 179 yards and a touchdown, Graham was close to unstoppable in last week's win at Tampa Bay. After a phenomenal season in 2011, he endured a subpar year in 2012 and was contained rather effectively by the Falcons in this season's opener. Against the Bucs, however, he began to reestablish himself as Brees' go-to receiver.
While Graham stood out last week, the Saints' red-zone efficiency, as a whole, is rather concerning. In two games this season, New Orleans has only one touchdown in seven trips inside the opponents' 20-yard line. This substandard statistic has the Saints ranked dead last in the NFL in red-zone touchdown percentage. Penalties account for part of the problem, but the going has been tough for Brees to find open receivers.
In years past, prolific wide receiver Marques Colston was a popular red-zone target. Against the Cardinals, however, he'll likely be matched up against Pro Bowl cornerback Patrick Peterson for much of the game. Combined with the fact that Colston isn't completely healthy, this could force Brees to look elsewhere when scoring opportunities arise.
With New Orleans seemingly in desperate need for a playmaker, Graham's size and athleticism make him an ideal candidate for the role. In fact, he scored the Saints' lone touchdown inside the red zone this season.
In the interest of creating match-up problems for opposing defenses, the Saints sometimes line Graham up as a slot receiver, in which case he's often covered by a safety or a nickel corner. Arizona's nickel corner is diminutive rookie Tyrann Mathieu, who yields nearly a foot in height and almost 80 pounds to Graham.
If the Saints are to remain undefeated, they must exploit such personnel advantages against Arizona and thus improve their production in the red zone.
When properly utilized, Jimmy Graham is a nightmarish assignment for opposing defenders. If the Saints turn to him at the appropriate times this Sunday, the results could prove too difficult for the Cardinals to overcome.