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49ers vs. Saints: How will San Francisco deal with Jimmy Graham?

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The San Francisco 49ers defense faces a tough matchup on Sunday when they meet Jimmy Graham and the New Orleans Saints. How will they cover him?

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Wesley Hitt

The San Francisco 49ers offense is the big question mark this weekend against the New Orleans Saints, but the 49ers defense will have a significant challenge of its own. Jimmy Graham has been dealing with a shoulder injury, but seems to be just about healthy. He was limited in practice during Weeks 7, 8 and 9 and was listed as questionable, but played all three weeks. In Week 7 he was simply a decoy, but in Week 8, he had five receptions for 59 yards and a touchdown, and in Week 9, he had seven receptions for 83 yards and a touchdown.

This week, Graham has been listed as a full participant on the injury report. I suspect he will be listed as probable for this weekend, but for our purposes, we can assume he is pretty much good to go. That of course means the 49ers face a significant challenge against this Saints offense. The Saints will look to develop their run game, with Mark Ingram getting a lot of work, but Graham is the biggest threat in the passing game.

The 49ers will likely be without linebacker Patrick Willis, as he sat out Wednesday and Thursday practices, and is questionable at best. If Willis sits, that means Chris Borland and Michael Wilhoite will play the two inside linebacker spots. At some point, one or the other will likely find himself attempting to cover Graham. When asked about defending Graham, defensive coordinator Vic Fangio said they would mix in a variety of options:

"It'll be a mix of guys depending upon the coverage we're in, depending upon where he lines up. Could be a corner type, could be a safety type, could be a linebacker type, so, it will be a mix."

I spoke with Jeff Deeney from Pro Football Focus to get an idea of where Graham has been lining up this season. According to Jeff, it breaks down as follows:

TE: 46.0%
Slot: 35.1%
Outside WR: 18.9%

I thought that tight end number seemed a little high, so I asked Jeff what the tight end number was in 2013. He said Graham lined up in the tight end role 33.3% of the time.

Michael Wilhoite and Chris Borland will likely each end up covering Graham in some capacity at some point in the game. It could be part of double-coverage, but they'll get their chances against Graham. However, Jimmie Ward likely will get him at times in the slot, and we could even see Antoine Bethea get some work in. The Saints have numerous weapons in the passing game, but Graham is far and away the most dangerous. Vic Fangio has his work cut out for him getting his guys ready for that matchup.