TAMPA — Jimmy Graham can no longer hang on the goalpost like a opossum after his quaking dunks over the crossbar. The NFL outlawed his familiar touchdown celebration, lumping it with other taunting penalties.
That's progress. But nobody has found a way to keep the Saints tight end out of the end zone.
At 6 feet 7, 265 pounds, Graham was a basketball power forward for four years at Miami and only started playing football as a graduate student in 2009. Today, the 27-year-old is considered the best pass-catching tight end in the NFL and has bedeviled the Bucs as much as anybody in the NFC South.
Need proof? In two games against the Bucs last season, Graham had 15 catches for 250 yards and two touchdowns. He was mildly contained in one game in 2012 (five catches, 69 yards) but hurt Tampa Bay with 13 catches for 202 yards in 2011.
"One of our Achilles heels right now is covering the tight end," Bucs defensive tackle Gerald McCoy said. "We have to be better at that. But the rush has to get there. Somebody has to … make the quarterback make a bad throw. Then on the back end, guys need to be on their spot and covering the tight end. What better week than this week to do it?"
The Bucs defense, tied with the Saints for 28th in the 32-team league in pass defense, has been scorched this season by lesser tight ends such as the Panthers' Greg Olson (eight catches, 83 yards, touchdown) and the Steelers' Heath Miller (10 catches, 85 yards, touchdown).
But neither of those players is as versatile or dangerous as Graham. He is a matchup nightmare. The Saints move him all over the field. When he's split wide like a receiver, do you put a corner on him? When he's in line as a tight end or flanker, do you use a quicker safety or thicker linebacker?
"He'll line up in the backfield, he'll line up out at receiver, he'll line up in line, so it does plague your defensive playcalling because in certain sets you want to call different things," cornerback Alterraun Verner said. "It's varying, but you never know until they break the huddle."
Where they were once considered just another grunt on the line of scrimmage, NFL tight ends have morphed into size XXL receivers just as likely to be put in motion as engage a defensive end or linebacker.
Many have basketball backgrounds, such as retired Chiefs and Falcons tight end Tony Gonzalez, who played basketball at Cal, and Chargers tight end Antonio Gates, 34, who was a small forward at Kent State.
Bucs tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins said he has admired Graham's game for several years.
"I just like to watch everything he does," Seferian-Jenkins said. "He's like a bigger receiver. He can run any route. I just like the way he plays the game. He's an extremely talented individual. That's why he's the best in the game."
The Bucs tried to find some kryptonite for the Saints' superman, drafting safety Mark Barron in the first round out of Alabama in 2012. The hope was that Barron would be big enough (6-2, 213) and fast enough (4.5 in the 40-yard dash) to neutralize Graham — and at times today he could line up with him man-to-man.
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"It's a tough duty matchup for anybody — safety, linebacker or whoever — when you go against a player like Jimmy Graham," Bucs coach Lovie Smith said. "But Mark is a scholarship player, too, and we have more. The safety position in general, a lot is asked of it. He has to be able to stop the run and play down in the box like your linebacker. And with us (in the) Tampa 2 he's back deep. He has to be able to cover ground like the best defensive back, and then take a tough duty like man coverage on a great tight end. Normally a safety is up to that challenge."
The Bucs had better be because on average Saints quarterback Drew Brees targets Graham around a dozen times a game.
"No. 9 (Brees) and No. 80 (Graham), over the past five years, that's been a huge combination," McCoy said. "We've got to be on it."