FOXBORO -- When the Patriots defense is preparing for an opponent, they depend on an effective imitation game in practice. They want their quarterbacks to mimic the every move of the passer they'll face that week. Receivers should replicate the routes they've seen on film, mirroring the playing style that Patriots corners and safeties will have to worry about on game day.
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There's only so much that can be done, obviously. Not every team has someone on the roster who can make himself look like Steelers wideout Antonio Brown or Cardinals running back David Johnson. Those are unique athletic specimens that can't really be duplicated.
The Patriots will face another one of those rare talents on Sunday night in Seahawks tight end Jimmy Graham. The difference is that New England's defense has been, in a way, preparing for him since the start of training camp.
"The great thing about us is we get to go against two great tight ends every day in practice," said safety Duron Harmon. "They've been giving us a great look at it in practice. I'm confident those two guys will have us ready to defend Jimmy Graham this week."
Rob Gronkowski and Martellus Bennett have been fondly referred to as "small forwards" in the Patriots locker room this season, and the same could be said for Graham, who played basketball at the University of Miami before turning his focus to football.
Like Graham, Gronkowski and Bennett both measure at least 6-foot-6. Like Graham, both Patriots tight ends are at least 260 pounds. Like Graham, the duo in New England has the strength, length and coordination to give linebackers and defensive backs fits.
"[Graham] does everything well, really," Patriots coach Bill Belichick said this week. "He’s good after the catch. He obviously has great hands. He’s a tremendous red area and goal line type of receiver. He can hurt you vertically. You’ve got to be careful not to give him a lot of room because he can take a short play and turn it into a long run kind of like the tight ends we have. They’re never covered even when you’re draped all over them."
The Bills found that out on Monday night as Graham reeled in two seemingly impossible one-handed touchdown catches to highlight his eight-reception, 103-yard day.
"These last couple weeks man he's been rolling," Harmon said. "I really feel like he's finding his role in this offense. They utilize him a lot. They're finding different ways to get him the ball, looking to give him different mismatches . . . The biggest thing is he's just so athletic. He's big, he's fast, he's strong. He's a baketball player out there."
Kind of similar to what Harmon and his defensive teammates see every day in practice. Difficult as that daily matchup with Gronkowski and Bennett may be, they're thankful for it headed into Sunday night.
"One is a blessing," Harmon said, "but two?"