Skip to main content

Matchup of the Game: it takes a village vs. Graham


       *E-Man and the Bengals defense get another shot at an elite tight end Sunday.   *


Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis caught himself musing this week about that Murderer's Row of tight ends his club has already faced just nine games into the season. And they don't even see the NFL's best, the monstrous 6-7, 265-pound Graham, until Sunday (1 p.m.-Cincinnati's Channel 12) in New Orleans.

"We've played the gamut. We've played everybody but (Antonio) Gates this year," Lewis said. " These receiving type guys that aren't necessarily lead blockers. They are more the receiver type than the lead blocker type."

These hybrid receivers have been tough on the Bengals' banged-up, inexperienced linebacker corps and a defense that has struggled against the run. The New England tandem of Rob Gronkowski and Tim Wright combined for 11 catches, 185 yards, and two TDs against the Bengals while the Colts duo of Coby Fleener and Dwayne Allen went for 116 yards and a TD. Greg Olsen led the Panthers with 62 yards, 13 on a back-breaking touchdown that gave Carolina a 31-24 lead with less than five minutes left.

"They all have the same thing in common. That's running good routes and knowing how to use their body very well," said SAM linebacker Emmanuel Lamur. "Credit to those guys. But we control our own destiny. We've got to go out there and compete every snap."

But while the 6-4, 242-pound Lamur is the athletic gem you draw up to cover these guys, that's not always reality because of formations, down-and –distance, tendencies, and all the variables. It truly does take a village to cover the best tight ends. Backers. Safeties. Cornerbacks.  Especially against Graham, used so much a like wide receiver he was able to grieve his franchise-tag designation during the offseason. That's the last thing he's lost.

Even though he dinged his shoulder in week five (just like Lamur did in week six), Graham leads all tight ends with 56 catches and trails only Gronkowski with seven touchdowns.  So what else is new? Since 2011 Graham leads all tight ends with 326 catches and 43 touchdowns.

Last week was typical. He had 10 catches, two for touchdowns, and one from two yards out gave the Saints the lead with 1:52 left before losing in overtime to the 49ers.

And, according to, he had the 10 catches against five different defenders. That happens when your head coach, Sean Payton, uses you more like Jerry Rice than John Mackey. Doing his best King James move, Graham posted up 6-0 cornerback Perrish Cox for that go-ahead score. Six of his catches and both TDs came against corners with Graham catching all six  targets to Cox and the 6-0 Chris Culliver.

The Bengals slot corner, 5-11 Leon Hall, isn't exactly embracing such a corner-tight end matchup even though it doesn't happen much. Except, it seems, against Graham. And you'd like to think if a corner is lined up against him, a safety is going to help him.

"Try to call timeout first so Paulie (Guenther) can switch it up," Hall joked about defending Graham. "But if I can't get the timeout in, he's a big body so if you get up on him a lot of the time it would be jump ball type of situation where he can reach up for the ball and you can't reach your short arms in there. You have to play a little differently, I can't say exactly how, but you have to be smart.

"It is pretty rare. It's may happen more often in their offense just because they line him up wide every once in a while and split him out. It's possible," Hall said. "You don't want to get in those situations. A guy with his background of basketball and productivity in the NFL you don't want to  get into too many of those jump ball situations. No matter how you might be, me or anyone else 5-10, 5-11, 6-feet, he's obviously taller than that."

Hall was reminded of a Graham matchup just this last Sunday when he watched his old position coach, Dolphins defensive coordinator Kevin Coyle, work against Lions Pro Bowl wide receiver Calvin Johnson.

"It's like a Calvin Johnson type of situation sometimes. He wins. You can be in great coverage. Like I was watching the Lions and Dolphins game. (Cornerback Brent) Grimes was in good position much of the time and he was able to make the catch. Similar situation. You just have to try to be in the best position you can, and try to get a little jump on it early …  He lines up in the slot a bunch. So it could be me, it could be a safety, it could be a linebacker. It just depends on the call."

Everybody has had their shots at the tight ends for the Bengals. In just his fourth regular-season start, Lamur got matched up in a game of no huddle with Patriots quarterback Tom Brady and he took some heat. He gave up a 27-yard catch to Gronkowski while getting two incompletions. Wright got him on both targets for 42 yards and a TD.

But according to PFF, Gronkowski also had his way against middle linebacker Rey Maualuga for a 16-yard touchdown, safety Reggie Nelson for a 19-yard catch and George Iloka, the other safety, for a 17-yard catch.

So it takes a village covering tight ends, but Lamur is the kind of guy than can be a not-so-secret weapon against them the more and more he sees of the best tight ends. After missing all of his sophomore season last year with a shoulder injury,  Lamur is manning up with another one after taking a shot to the shoulder on the last play of regulation against Carolina. And while he's only working on his ninth regular-season start,, they're encouraged.

 "If you were to draw somebody up, it would be real close to his type of style," Hall said of Lamur covering tight ends. " You know, tall, lengthy, athletic, fast. He's got good quicks to him. Definitely if you were to draw it up, E-man would be the guy."

They love his enthusiasm and work ethic and they see progress. He's rated No. 22 of 84 4-3 outside backers in PFF's pass coverage rankings. He's got two picks to go with seven passes defensed, third most on the team. The more he sees the Grahams, and the Gronks and the Olsens, they believe, the better he'll  get. Lewis calls it time on task.

"It's almost like a rookie season with him, because as hard as the young guy works, until you have to go out there and play an NFL season, you really don't have a great feel for it," Lewis said. "He's battled through some injuries, some ups and downs with his body, and the further we get away from that, and he gets back and starts feeling better about the way he feels physically, all the better. But also the time on task, and the mental aspect of playing football week in and week out. He's in the situation where he gets matched up on some of these guys that are athletic, whether they're runners or tight ends as pass receivers, he gets the opportunity to do this."

On Sunday Lamur gets another slide show to put in his always-present iPad. He's already learned plenty.

 "You have to put a hand on those guys," Lamur said. "You can't let them get free releases. That's where they make they're bread and butter. You just have to collision."

Best way to defend Graham and his Pro Bowl quarterback Drew Brees?  Stop the run and rush the passer. That's how they've solved elite quarterbacks in the last two years, ranging from Tom Brady and Matt Ryan to Joe Flacco three times and Ben Roethlisberger twice.

"Just execution. You're not going to trick Brees, Brady," Hall said. "You may throw a few things at them that they're not used to seeing, but you just have to execute in games like that. When the ball is in the air, you pick it, or if they're sitting in the pocket, you sack them. Just execution."


Rob Gronkowski  NE  6-100, 1 TD; Tim Wright NE 5-85, 1TD; Dennis Pitta BAL 10-83; Coby Fleener IND 4-64; Greg Olsen CAR 6-62 1 TD; Delanie Walker TEN 4-54; Dwayne Allen IND 3-52,  1 TD; Gary Barnidge CLE 2-46.

This article has been reproduced in a new format and may be missing content or contain faulty links. Please use the Contact Us link in our site footer to report an issue.