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John DeShazier: Jimmy Graham's ongoing education continues Sunday

Tight end's record-breaking pace slowed in the second half of season as opponents adjusted coverages

You knew defenses would counter New Orleans Saints tight end Jimmy Graham more effectively as the season marched along, that his record-breaking pace eventually would slow as opponents chose to find ways to impede his progress in hopes of slowing down the Saints' offense.

So it's not much of a surprise that his first-half onslaught (746 receiving yards and 10 touchdowns on 49 receptions in the first eight games) has trended downward in the second half (398 yards and five touchdowns on 32 catches in the last seven games).

For Graham, the ongoing education continues along with his ascendency to the top spot at the position in his profession, a class that will be in session again Sunday, when the Saints (10-5) play Tampa Bay (4-11) at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome in the regular-season finale for both teams.

A win by the Saints will guarantee New Orleans a playoff berth. A win and a loss by Carolina in Atlanta would give the Saints the NFC South Division title and the No. 2 playoff seed, which would assure a first-round bye.

Not that a superior outing by Graham is a necessity for a New Orleans victory, but another standout day to go along with several others earlier this season obviously would help the cause for New Orleans.

Graham had five 100-yard receiving games in the first eight, one in the last seven. His yards per catch average slipped from 15.2 to 12.4 during that time.

For him, it simply has been the cost of doing business as an elite tight end that's two touchdown catches short of tying the NFL single-season record for tight ends. New England's Rob Gronkowski caught 17 touchdowns in 2011.

"You always learn something, each and every Sunday," Graham said. "Defenses and teams really look to try to do some different things versus this offense, and especially versus me wherever I'm at on the field. I think it's only going to make me better, it's only going to make me a more diverse player. The more I see it, the more I expect it.

"There's always help over the top, people don't let me just run down the field anymore. And for the most part, they look to jam me wherever I'm at on the field. Whenever I'm in the slot, sometimes they'll just stand the defensive end up and he'll get in my face and the linebacker will hit me.

"They're always looking to disrupt the timing between me and Drew. The good thing about that is this: If I do manage to slip those, there's cavities in the defense because they're trying to do so much as far as trying to disrupt us."

For much of the season, the disruption hasn't worked. In 11 games, Graham has had at least one 20-yard catch. He has caught a touchdown pass in 10 games and five of those times, he has caught two touchdowns.

Those outbursts have him within striking distance of the touchdown record for tight ends even with the slowed production.

"I'm not really concerned about records," Graham said. "I just want to get a win and try to get in the playoffs. That's really where the mind-set is at, and really where all the focus is right now."

And that includes focusing on a Tampa Bay defense that has produced 21 interceptions this season. The Buccaneers allow just 229 .1 passing yards per game and one of the key members of the secondary is safety Dashon Goldson.

Goldson has been fined $190,000 this season, and has lost another $264,705 in wages, due to illegal hits.

"You've got to be aware of a lot of those guys on that defense," Graham said. "They're pretty talented across the board. You definitely have to look to protect yourself but when those plays are there to be made, you have to sacrifice yourself sometimes. If that's the case, that's how it'll be.

"This is a violent game. You can't run around scared. You've got to be ready for it. (Goldson is) a physical and talented player. Really good at breaking on routes, mirrors well and obviously he's a ball hawk and looks to dislodge the ball and players. It'll be a good matchup and I'm always excited to play him because he's very, very talented."

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