Baltimore Ravens defensive coordinator Dean Pees talks about facing the Saints' All-Pro tight end Jimmy Graham and the challenges he presents. (Baltimore Sun video)
The powerful left-shoulder hit from Cincinnati Bengals safety George Iloka jolted New Orleans Saints tight end Jimmy Graham off his feet.
The blow to the 6-foot-7, 265-pound receiver drew a penalty for unnecessary roughness, but also seemingly made the All-Pro wary of crossing the middle. Graham spent several minutes rubbing his shoulder after the hit and, when he returned, did not make the big plays that have been his trademark.
The Bengals defense was physical, stingy in the red zone and contained quarterback Drew Brees with a strong pass rush last Sunday, all while effectively mixing zone and man-to-man coverages. In a 27-10 win they provided an example, if not a blueprint, for how the Ravens could defend the traditionally prolific Saints offense Monday night at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.
Shadowing Graham with cornerback Leon Hall when he was split outside or having Iloka and linebackers jam him at the line of scrimmage, the Bengals used bracket coverage to limit Brees' favorite target to three catches for 29 yards. Brees averaged just 7.7 yards per completion and threw his only touchdown pass in the fourth quarter.
"The Bengals got their hands on Jimmy Graham a lot to slow him down," Ravens safety Will Hill said. "They pressed him at the line. And they mixed up their zone and man, which you have to do against him. They got a lot of pressure. They kept Brees off-balance. They hit the quarterback.
"You can definitely take some things from what they did. You've got to play a game within a game. I'll be heavily involved with Jimmy. That's why we're in the NFL: to compete. I'm looking forward to it, as well as the rest of the team."
Although the Ravens have thoroughly studied how the Bengals held the second-ranked Saints offense to 330 yards last week — well below their average of 424.5 yards per game — they insist they're not going to simply copy their AFC North rival.
The Ravens intend to play their own style against a diverse offense headlined by Brees, the most accurate passer in NFL history, and Graham, who leads the Saints with 59 receptions for 623 yards and seven touchdowns.
"You always try to look at what everybody does against somebody, and if they're successful and if it fits into your plans," defensive coordinator Dean Pees said. "I remember if you played a close game, people would say, 'Well, that's the blueprint of that team now. Everybody will use that.' That's kind of an overused cliché a little bit in that it has to fit your scheme.
"You can use some ideas as far as maybe zone or man or some matchups. The other thing is you don't even know if New Orleans is going to attack you in the same fashion. They have so much stuff. It's not so much a blueprint. You can take little things from everything."
Days after the Bengals' victory, coach Marvin Lewis opined that the penalty on Iloka was worth it because of the debilitating effect it had on Graham.
Besides using Hill, rookie linebacker C.J. Mosley also likely figures into the Ravens' strategy against Graham because of his range and size.
Few defenses have stopped or slowed Graham, who has caught 360 passes for 4,486 yards and 48 touchdowns in five seasons, including 86 receptions for 1,215 yards and 16 touchdowns last season. The former Miami basketball player combines size, 4.56 speed in the 40-yard dash, a 38-inch vertical leap and unusually large hands.
"He's like LeBron James playing tight end," Ravens cornerback Lardarius Webb said. "He's a beast. He's a big old mismatch, like a Calvin Johnson. We have to know where he is at all times and not let him break out."
The two-time Pro Bowl selection caught 10 passes for 76 yards and two touchdowns two games ago in a narrow loss to the San Francisco 49ers.
"He's unique," Pees said of Graham. "He's pretty special because of his size. There have been some really talented tight ends. None of them are as big as he is. They split him out and try to do some things with him to get you singled up on him, but there's nobody quite that big and that good of hands. He's a special tight end, no doubt about it."
Brees belongs in his own category, too.
He's an eight-time Pro Bowl selection, a former Super Bowl Most Valuable Player and is the most accurate passer in NFL history with a 66.1 career completion percentage. Brees has four 5,000-yard passing seasons and career totals of 54,152 yards, 382 touchdowns, 187 interceptions and a 95.3 passer rating.
However, the Saints' offense converted only 1 of 3 red-zone opportunities against the Bengals.
"I felt like we had a good plan," said Brees, who's winless in three previous games against the Ravens. "We just weren't really efficient in the red zone. We got down there three times and only got 10 points. You've got to make the most of it, and unfortunately we didn't."
Although Brees' numbers are slightly down this season (3,071 yards, 19 touchdowns and 10 interceptions after passing for 5,162 yards and 39 touchdowns last year), he remains one of the most formidable quarterbacks in the NFL.
"We've got to communicate well on the outside," Webb said. "We have to play technique. We can't let Drew Brees get hot, get warm, because when he's on fire, he's on fire. He can make all the plays, all the throws. He knows how to extend the play, get extra yards. He knows where to go with the ball."
Among Brees' top attributes are his ability to throw on the run and elude pass rushers; he's been sacked just 13 times this season. Brees is adept at looking off defensive backs to keep them from locking onto his chosen target.
"You just have to be patient in the back end," Pees said. "There are some guys that do not look off receivers. As soon as they go back, they already have in mind who they're going to. He's not one of those. Really, the elite guys, none of them are that way.
"The other thing about him is it's not only his eyes. If you ever watch him when he drops back, his feet never stop. He's always moving around in the pocket. That's hard because you're trying to read the quarterback and he's moving around and his head is moving all the time. He finds guys. He's the guy that makes it work."
Getting pressure on Brees is critical for a Ravens defense that has 25 sacks, led by outside linebacker Elvis Dumervil's 10 1/2.
"Good scheme, good quarterback," Dumervil said. "We just have to make sure we do our job in the back end of disguising and making sure he doesn't see what he wants to see. Obviously, up front, it's always on us to get to him. It'll be a great challenge."
The Saints this week lost rookie wide receiver Brandin Cooks for the season to a broken thumb, but still have plenty of skill players. The Saints also have imposing wide receivers Marques Colston and Kenny Stills and running back Mark Ingram has rushed for 618 yards and six touchdowns.
But Ingram didn't get going against the Bengals either, and the Saints managed just 75 rushing yards and averaged 2.9 yards per carry.
"We're not going to use that game as a blueprint because I don't think there is a blueprint," Webb said. "We're just going to play Ravens ball. We can't go in trying to steal somebody else's game plan and try to be something we're not. We're going to be the Ravens and play ball."