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Raiders look to slow down New Orleans TE Graham

Raiders look to slow down New Orleans TE Graham

ALAMEDA, Calif. (AP) Playing in the same division as Antonio Gates and having faced Tony Gonzalez so many times over the years has given the Oakland Raiders plenty of experience dealing with elite tight ends.

Going up against New Orleans' Jimmy Graham this week might be the toughest test yet.

With his imposing 6-foot-7, 265-pound frame and the athletic ability of a former college basketball player, Graham is a matchup nightmare for opposing defenses. That's especially true for a Raiders team that is banged up in the secondary and has struggled all season to slow down opposing tight ends.

``He's always been a big guy who can run and go up and catch the ball but he's learned how to run routes and how to get himself open,'' coach Dennis Allen said. ``He's one of the toughest matchups that we've seen.''

Graham has overcome an inconsistent stretch earlier this season when he struggled to hold onto balls and has regained his form of late. He has 20 catches for 281 yards and four touchdowns the past three games.

That improvement has helped the Saints (4-5) rebound from an 0-4 start heading into Sunday's game against the Raiders (3-6).

``I think he was battling through some little nicks and injuries early on,'' quarterback Drew Brees said. ``I think all of us just needed to find the mojo a little bit. It took four games to do it, but when you look at the last five games you'd say we've definitely had our moments where we feel like we're back to playing the type of football we know how to play.''

Since the start of last season, Graham is second in the NFL among all tight ends in receptions (144), yards receiving (1,843) and touchdowns (18). That's quite a resume for someone who played just one year of football and four years of basketball in college at Miami.

But despite the lack of experience, Graham was drafted in the third round by the Saints in 2010 and has quickly emerged as one of the best in the league at his position.

``Graham is a matchup problem throughout the league,'' cornerback Ron Bartell said. ``He runs like a wide receiver but has unusual size. He definitely presents a problem, but there are so many tight ends like that throughout the league. We just need to be fundamentally sound. If we're able to do that I think we'll come out fine.''

The Raiders have struggled to do that this season. They allowed Dennis Pitta and Ed Dickson to combine for seven catches for 126 yards and two touchdowns in last week's 55-20 loss at Baltimore as Oakland left the middle of the field wide open most of the game.

Heath Miller caught two TD passes for Pittsburgh earlier in the year against Oakland, and Jacob Tamme and Joel Dreessen teamed up for a big day for Denver as well.

The defensive backs say much of the problem can be attributed to poor communication between the secondary and linebackers, which must be fixed immediately with Brees and the Saints coming to town.

``Oh, boy. It can't happen this week,'' cornerback Michael Huff said. ``He's one of the smartest, one the greatest quarterbacks out there. Pre-snap, he kind of knows already what you're in, so we've got to hopefully disguise a little bit and make him think a little bit and let our pressure get him.''

Complicating the task this week is the fact that Oakland strong safety Tyvon Branch has missed both practices so far with a neck injury from last week in Baltimore and his status for Sunday's game is in question.

Branch and outside linebacker Philip Wheeler have gotten the most time this season matching up against tight ends. Wheeler has struggled of late. He allowed six catches for 88 yards in six attempts last week and opposing quarterbacks have completed all 16 passes thrown his way the past three weeks, according to game charting by Pro Football Focus.

If Branch is limited at all, backup Mike Mitchell could get more time. Mitchell matched up frequently with tight ends in past years with some success, but has been mostly a special teams player this year.

``I'm curious to see how he's going to handle more of a physical, skill-position guy checking him at the line,'' Mitchell said. ``Usually, he's too fast for linebackers and too big for DBs, but I've been able to have success on those guys because I'm a skilled position guy. I like to get my hands on you a little bit and slow you down. So, we'll see. It's going to be a tough matchup. He's very good. He's one of Drew Brees' favorite targets. If he can be eliminated, that takes a lot out of their offense.''

NOTES: RB Darren McFadden ran on his sprained right ankle for the first time since hurting it Nov. 4 but is not ready to practice yet. ... RB Mike Goodson (sprained right ankle), DT Richard Seymour (knee, hamstring) and WR Darrius Heyward-Bey (hamstring) also did not practice. ... S Matt Giordano returned to practice after leaving last week's game with a concussion. ... The Raiders signed CB Cory Nelms to the practice squad. ... The Raiders announced the game will be televised locally.

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AP Sports Writer Brett Martel in Metairie, La., contributed to this report.

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Ravens vs. Saints Week 7: Date, time, TV channel, live stream, how to watch

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USA TODAY Sports/AP Images

Ravens vs. Saints Week 7: Date, time, TV channel, live stream, how to watch

The Baltimore Ravens' top-ranked scoring defense clashes with the New Orleans Saints' top-ranked scoring offense in one of the most anticipated games of Week 7.

The Ravens (4-2) are coming off a historic 21-0 shutout win over the Tennessee Titans, while the Saints (4-1) have had a full week of rest after beating up the Redskins in primetime in a dominating 43-19 win.

The Ravens are 5-1 all time against the Saints winning their last three contests and are 3-1 at M&T Bank Stadium. Here are key factors ahead of Sunday's game.

Ravens vs. Saints Week 7 Game Preview

1. Brees can make history vs. Ravens

Drew Brees' road to Hall of Fame enshrinement has not been without obstacles. In Week 7, Brees will face a roadblock he's had issues with in the past. If he can clear it, he will etch his name yet again in the NFL history books.

Since entering the NFL in 2001, Brees is 0-4 against the Ravens, making Baltimore the only NFL team he has never beaten. A win Sunday would make him just the third quarterback to beat all 32 teams,  adding him to the list that features only Brett Favre and Peyton Manning. And if that sounds familiar, it's because it it.  In Week 5 against the Redskins Brees passed both Favre and Manning to become NFL's all-time leading passer.

But the history-making for Brees won't stop there come Sunday. He enters the matchup with 499 career touchdowns and one more against the Ravens will make him the fifth signal caller in league history to throw 500.

The Ravens defense, which is ranked first in points (12.8), first in yards (270.8), second in passing yards (188) and third in rushing yards (82.8), will have to act fast as Brees hasn't thrown an interception in his last six regular-season games and leads the league in completion percentage, interception percentage, passer rating and fourth quarter passer rating. Against the Ravens, he's 116-for-181 for 1,340 yards, nine touchdowns, eight interceptions and 10 sacks. 

2. Flacco, Ravens offense needs to capitalize

Drew Brees isn't the only QB in this matchup making history. Joe Flacco became the third different quarterback in NFL history to complete 25 or more passes in nine consecutive games, completing the feat in the Week 6 victory over Tennessee. He also instilled a much needed confidence boost in receiver Michael Crabtree after dropping the ball literally and figuratively Week 5, connecting with him six times and for one touchdown. 

The Saints defense is ranked 26th in points (28.0), 18th in yards (369), 30th in passing yards (297.6) but first in rushing yards (71.4). Those are numbers the Ravens will need to capitalize on.

The Ravens' running game is still searching for its footing, so expect the chemistry between Flacco and the core receivers to strengthen. Flacco also has performed well against the Saints in the past,  finishing with 117.7 passer rating in his last two games against the Saints. The Ravens are averaging 28.7 points per game against New Orleans., lighting the Saints up for at least 30 points in the each past three matchups,

Saints cornerback Marshon Lattimore, who exited their Week 5 game early with a concussion, was a full participant during Wednesday and Thursday's practices and will be on John Brown, Willie Snead and Crabtree all day long.

Ravens vs. Saints Week 7 Matchup Preview:

1. Jimmy Smith vs. Michael Thomas: 
Thomas will be keeping Smith preoccupied all afternoon as the wide receiver is ranked fourth in the NFL with 519 yards, averaging 103.8 yards per game with three touchdowns.

2. Mark Ingram/Alvin Kamara vs. Ravens defense:
Referred to as 'Lightning and Thunder,' the two have put up 352 yards, are averaging 53 and 59.8 yards per game respectively and have seven touchdowns. 

Ravens vs. Saints Week 7 Injury Report:

Click here to see the latest Ravens-Saints injury report.

Ravens vs. Saints Week 7 How to Watch:

Who: Baltimore Ravens vs. New Orleans Saints

What: Week 7 regular season

When: Sunday, Oct. 21, 2018, 4:05 p.m. ET

Where: M&T Bank Stadium

TV Channel: FOX

Live Stream: Watch Now with fuboTV - Try free trial

Radio: WBAL New Radio 1090 and 98Rock

Weather: 55 degrees, mostly sunny

Ravens 2018 Regular Season Schedule:

Week 1: Sun., 9/9. Ravens vs. Bills. Win, 47-3 (1-0)

Week 2: Thur., 9/13 Ravens at Bengals. Loss, 34-23 (1-1)

Week 3: Sun., 9/23 Ravens vs. Broncos. Win, 27-14 (2-1)

Week 4: Sun., 9/30 Ravens at Steelers. Win, 26-14 (3-1)

Week 5: Sun., 10/7 Ravens at Browns. Loss, 12-9 (3-2)

Week 6: Sun., 10/14 Ravens at Titans. Win, 21-0 (4-2)

Week 7: Sun., 10/21 vs. Saints, 4:05 p.m.

Week 8: Sun., 10/28 @ Panthers, 1:00 p.m.

Week 9: Sun., 11/4 vs. Steelers, 1:00 p.m.

Week 10:  BYE week

Week 11: Sun., 11/18 vs. Bengals, 1:00 p.m.

Week 12: Sun., 11/25 vs. Raiders, 1:00 p.m.

Week 13: Sun., 12/2 @ Falcons, 1:00 p.m.

Week 14: Sun., 12/9 @ Chiefs, 1:00 p.m.

Week 15: Sun., 12/16 vs. Buccaneers, 1:00 p.m.

Week 16: Sat., 12/22 or Sunday 12/23 @ Chargers, TBD

Week 17: Sun., 12/30 vs. Browns, 1:00 p.m.

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Wide receiver Willie Snead thriving with Ravens as man in the middle

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USA TODAY Sports

Wide receiver Willie Snead thriving with Ravens as man in the middle

OWINGS MILLS, Md. -- Willie Snead has a knack for weaving through a row of linebackers in the middle of the field before making a clutch catch for the Baltimore Ravens.

Such was the case last Sunday against Tennessee, when Snead squeezed between two defenders for a 24-yard gain on a third-and-17 from the Baltimore 15.

"He's on the ground, he makes the catch, he's getting pushed back to the ground, stepped all over, and he just gets up and gives the first-down signal right there in the guy's face," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. "That's the kind of competitor he is. He's all ball, all the time."

Baltimore general manager Ozzie Newsome rarely chases restricted free agents, but he made an exception with Snead this past offseason after it became apparent that the receiver's three-year run in New Orleans was done. One of Drew Brees' favorite targets in 2015 and 2016, Snead began last season with a three-game suspension for violating the NFL personal conduct policy. He then fought a hamstring injury and finished with just eight catches for 92 yards and no touchdowns.

Armed with a two-year, $10.4 million contract, Snead was delighted to arrive in Baltimore last April.

"Last year just left a really bitter taste in my mouth, the organization and how everything was handled," Snead said Tuesday. "To be a part of this organization was just a breath of fresh air. I wanted to go somewhere where I'm wanted."

It couldn't have worked out better for Snead -- and the Ravens.

"To see that you were right, to see all that come together and him play so well, being exactly what you thought you were going to get, is very rewarding," Harbaugh said.

Snead was one of three free agent receivers signed by Newsome in an effort to enhance a passing game that sputtered in 2017. Snead is the possession receiver, Michael Crabtree provides an outside threat and John Brown is the speedster.

Snead and Crabtree are tied for the team lead with 30 catches. Brown has 21 receptions for a team-high 424 yards and three touchdowns.

"I don't have the physical ability like John Brown to run by you, and I'm not big and strong like Michael Crabtree," Snead observed, "so I have to work harder than everybody else just to stand out."

That's how it's always been for Snead, who finally finds himself in a place where his talent is acknowledged and appreciated.

"This is a guy that's been doubted his whole career -- high school, college and the NFL," Harbaugh said. "So I'm fine if they keep doubting him."

After starring as a quarterback at Muskegon Heights in Michigan, Snead played three years as a receiver at Ball State before going undrafted in 2014. He finally made it to the NFL the following year.

"Coming out of college, (people said) I left too early, I wasn't ready to play in the NFL," Snead recalled. "And in the NFL, it was, `Is he fast enough to separate? Can he make those plays in clutch situations?' I've always been doubted."

Not anymore.

"I'll tell you one thing, Willie comes Sunday ready to play," Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco said. "He's one of the toughest guys I've been around."

This Sunday, the Ravens (4-2) host the Saints (4-1). Snead insists this wasn't one of those games that he circled on the calendar.

"This is another team. I have to approach it that way just to stay focused," Snead said.

New Orleans coach Sean Payton has seen enough of Snead this season to know he's a threat with the ball, and without it.

"He has a tremendous amount of grit. You see him making plays on third down," Payton said. "He's an outstanding blocker. He'll come across in motion, he'll get to the point of attack in the run game, but he'll also find the holes in the zone and man-to-man coverages."

The 5-foot-11, 205-pound Snead has no problem mixing it up with anyone, large or small, at any spot on the field.

"He can go inside or outside, but man, he makes some -- scouts call them blood area -- catches," Harbaugh said. "In the middle, that's where he thrives."

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