View Full Version : Tight ends pose threat

10-08-2006, 04:35 AM
By Scott Brown
Sunday, October 8, 2006

Ben Roethlisberger chuckled when asked if the Steelers defense will try to confuse first-year starting quarterback Philip Rivers.
"You don't know if Troy's going to do a somersault before he blitzes," Roethlisberger said, "or what's going on out there."

There is something else in tonight's nationally-televised game against the Chargers that may present Troy Polamalu, the All-Pro and apparently acrobatic safety, with a higher degree of difficulty.

That is covering Antonio Gates.

NFL tight ends have gone from blocking-first players that were generally afterthoughts in the air attack to sleek pass catchers that must be accounted for by safeties like Polamalu.

Gates isn't at the forefront of the movement but is the best model it has produced to date.

The fourth-year pro is 6-4 and 260 pounds, runs like a wide receiver and corrals passes in heavy traffic the way he once did rebounds as a standout basketball player at Kent State.

Gates has caught 170 passes for 2,065 yards and 23 touchdowns the last two seasons in becoming the prototype for the new tight end.

"They're big, they're athletic, they can run, they get great body position," Polamalu said.

They have become another source of angst for defensive coordinators since they are usually too fast for linebackers to cover and too big for safeties to handle.

The impact Gates and others have made is such that the Steelers moved up in the first round of the 2003 draft so they could select a fast, physical safety capable of handling big, athletic tight ends.

"We talked about getting Troy in the draft as a safety that can match up with some of those guys," Steelers coach Bill Cowher said. "It's not easy to do. These are guys that can line up like receivers (in) two point stances, they can create physical mismatches."

The Steelers serve as a microcosm in the recent evolution of the tight end.

In 1995, the team took Mark Bruener in the first round, and he served mainly as a blocker during his time with the Steelers.

In 2005, the Steelers selected Heath Miller in the first round, and after a slow start he caught 39 passes for 459 yards and six touchdowns as a rookie.

Showing the athleticism that has made him an integral part of the passing game and part of the new wave of tight ends, Miller had an 87-yard catch-and-run touchdown in the Steelers' regular-season opener.

"It has evolved," Miller said of his position, "because there have been some guys that came through the league maybe a few years ago that's really proved the tight end can be a good weapon, and it's really opened a lot of teams' eyes to what the position can do."

Shannon Sharpe emerged as one of the NFL's top receivers as a tight end in the early 1990s but the player who may have most changed the position, or at least the paradigm, is Tony Gonzalez.

He led Cal to the "Sweet Sixteen" of the NCAA men's basketball tournament before the Chiefs took the 6-5 Gonzalez with the 13th overall pick of the 1997 NFL Draft.

While he emerged as a top pass-catching threat and perennial Pro Bowler the Chiefs continued to run the ball well with Gonzalez at tight end.

"When you're a really good receiver (as a tight end), the general consensus is that you can't block," Chargers coach Marty Schottenheimer said. "I don't think that's the case. You don't ask them to go block a big defensive lineman, but by the same token, I think they can be very effective."

There are numerous examples of that.

The run-oriented Steelers won last year's Super Bowl with a tight end known more for his receiving ability, and the Broncos' ground game certainly didn't suffer when they had Sharpe.

The Dallas Cowboys won three Super Bowls in the 1990s with a pass-catching tight end (Jay Novacek). Yet they also were one of the top running teams in the league during that time, and feature back Emmitt Smith eventually became the league's all-time leading rusher.

"(Novacek) was about 6-5, 220 pounds and could run a 4.6 (in the 40-yard dash)," said Pitt coach Dave Wannstedt, who was the offensive coordinator of those great Cowboys teams. "He was closer to being a receiver than he was a tight end. And I think we led the league in rushing two years with Emmitt Smith when Jay was our starting tight end. Everybody's looking for the ideal guy, but you have to kind of adjust a little bit to what you want to do on offense."

Right now the ideal guy would be a clone of Gates.

It is a testament to both his athletic ability and how much teams now covet a game-breaking tight end that Gates is now the best player at his position even though he didn't play football in college.

Gates starred in basketball for before signing with the Chargers as an undrafted free agent, correctly figuring he had a better chance to make it in the NFL than as an undersized power forward in the NBA.

His success and that of others like Alge Crumpler, Todd Heap and Jeremy Shockey to name a few can be attributed to tight ends being taken among the top 10 picks in two of the last three drafts (Kellen Winslow Jr. in 2004 and Vernon Davis in 2006).

"Maybe 10 or 15 years ago," Miller said, "that would be unheard of."

Not anymore.

Not with tight ends like Gates showing they can bolster a passing game and enhance a running game by spreading out defenses.

"We have a lot of good tight ends in the NFL and Gates is another one," Steelers cornerback Deshea Townsend said.

Townsend will find himself matched up at times with Gates Sunday when the Chargers line up their All-Pro in the slot.

He'll give up six inches and about 70 pounds to Gates, and size is not the only reason why Gates will be a difficult assignment for Townsend.

"He's able to make every catch but he's also able to run every route," Townsend said. "That's what makes him different than a lot of tight ends."

And why teams are looking for tight ends that are like him.