Covering Saints tight end Jimmy Graham will challenge Jets

New Orleans Saints tight end Jimmy Graham dunks

New Orleans Saints tight end Jimmy Graham dunks the ball over the goal post after scoring a 27-yard touchdown in the second quarter of a game against the Miami Dolphins at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. (Sept. 30, 2013) (Credit: Getty)

The one-on-one matchup that could determine whether the Jets win or lose Sunday involves Saints All-Pro tight end Jimmy Graham against a guy named Antonio. The only question is whether the Antonio is Cromartie or Allen.

Will it be Cromartie, the Jets' best cornerback, who regularly covers the best receiver but rarely a tight end? Or will it be Allen, who did a bang-up job against the Patriots' big-time tight end, Rob Gronkowski, in the Jets' 30-27 overtime win in Week 7?

Either way, whoever shadows the Saints' extraordinary tight end has his work cut out. Graham might be the biggest matchup conundrum for a defensive backfield this side of Calvin Johnson.

The 6-7, 260-pound Graham may be listed as a tight end, but he has the speed of a wide receiver and rarely is used in the traditional blocking role of an NFL tight end. The man has been a touchdown machine, with eight in seven games. He had two in a 35-17 win over the Bills last week despite playing sparingly because of a foot problem -- described as a partially torn plantar fascia -- that has limited his mobility (although you might not be able to tell).

I asked Allen if he's noticed any drop-off in Graham's speed or effectiveness. "No,'' he said. "As athletes, we're trained to play through injuries, and I guess he's playing through it well, because I don't see it in the film.''

Rex Ryan suggested the Saints ought to be conservative with Graham's injury and not let him on the team flight. Ryan should only be so lucky. Despite being limited in practice, Graham is expected to play.

"Hopefully, [Graham] doesn't play a lot,'' said Ryan, who referred to him as "a unique cat. He has the size, he has speed, phenomenal at adjusting to the football and he has a great rapport with Brees. It just seems like, where do they grow these dudes? They're all 6-7, 6-8 and they're fast. We've played them all, it seems like.''

Ryan hinted it could be Cromartie who shadows Graham. Why? Well, the only game this season in which Graham didn't catch a pass was against the Patriots, who had cornerback Aqib Talib cover him. Perhaps not coincidentally, that was the Saints' only loss.

If Ryan likes the way Allen covered Gronkowski (eight catches, but no TDs), he might be tempted to put the former linebacker on Graham. The one hesitation Ryan may have is that Graham is faster than Gronkowski.

"Graham is basically a wide receiver who just happens to be 6-7,'' linebacker Calvin Pace said. "It's a tough matchup. It's like, who do you put on him?

"I don't want to guard him,'' he said jokingly . . . sort of. "And they do a good job of getting him in space, so it's going to be a person that's got to get hands on him, just know where he is.''

Cromartie, who said last week he has been disappointed in his play this season, declined to talk to reporters this week.

If it's Allen on Graham, he's ready for the challenge. The Jets played a variety of coverages on Gronkowski before having Allen go one-on-one the entire second half. And it paid off in a big way, as Allen picked off Tom Brady's third-quarter pass to Gronkowski and returned it for a momentum-swinging touchdown.

Gronkowski did get behind Allen on one pass that would have been a touchdown, but he dropped it. "I was definitely frustrated with that play,'' Allen said. "I misjudged [the ball] and he almost came down with it. He didn't, and it was a relief.''

The key to playing against big, athletic tight ends like Gronkowski and Graham: be physical. "They're both tall, big-type guys. Just got to beat 'em up and be physical with them,'' Allen said. "Just get your hands on him any way you could. Be a tick to him, annoy him.''

And keep everything in front of you whenever possible.

"Don't let him get that big play,'' Allen said. "Catching 5-yard routes is not going to beat you. It's going to irritate you, but it's not going to beat us. We just try to stay on top and not let the ball get thrown over our head.''

Easier said than done. Especially with another gargantuan wide receiver in a tight end's body coming to town.

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