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Tightening Up Tight End Coverage

Posted Oct 23, 2013

Cardinals trying to make sure Gonzalez isn't latest to cause a problem

The Cardinals don't want Atlanta's Tony Gonzalez, here being tackled by Arizona linebacker Daryl Washington, to be the latest tight end to have a big game against them.

The list includes some of the best the NFL has to offer, and the statistics are one of the major factors in each of the Cardinals’ losses this season.

The tight end has been an Achilles’ heel for the defense this season, and Sunday, one of the best tight ends in history visits when the Atlanta Falcons bring in aging-but-still-a-major-weapon Tony Gonzalez to University of Phoenix Stadium.

“We know that position is hurting us. We see it,” safety Yeremiah Bell said. “More teams are trying to look inside because they aren’t going outside on us, and I think more teams know we have tight end problems so they are getting them into positions where they can get them into the flat, running through the zone.

“We’ll shore it up, though.”

The issue, defenders say, isn’t one-on-one matchups with the opposing tight end but more an ineffectiveness in carrying out the scheme. Players failing to get the right depth in zone coverage or failing to play with the correct leverage are among the culprits.

“We’ve got a good game plan for Tony this week, and if we execute the game plan like we are supposed to, it shouldn’t be a problem,” cornerback Jerraud Powers said.

That could be crucial. A tight end has been the leading receiver in terms of receptions (or at least tied for most) in every game against the Cardinals save for the Detroit game. In the Cards’ four losses, Jared Cook of the Rams, Jimmy Graham of the Saints and Vernon Davis of the 49ers all had at least 134 yards receiving, and opposing tight ends have caught two touchdowns in each of those games.

Now comes Gonzalez, who has grown in importance for the Falcons with wide receiver Julio Jones done for the season with a foot injury and fellow Pro Bowl receiver Roddy White limited at best as he battles hamstring and ankle injuries.

Gonzalez was going to retire but came back after the Falcons basically let him skip training camp, and after a slow start, he had 22 catches in back-to-back games against New England and New York and dominated. He had just two catches for 30 yards against Tampa last week, but the Buccaneers spent so much time and effort shutting him down quarterback Matt Ryan shredded the defense elsewhere.

“It doesn’t matter how many resources they’re going to put on him, what they are going to do with him with their game plan, he has a mindset that he’s going to get his opportunities,” Falcons coach Mike Smith said. “If the reads take the ball to him, he’s going to make his plays.”

Ryan said Gonzalez has seen every kind of coverage imaginable – the Jets locked two guys on him in the red zone constantly – but the Cards need to find a balance to defend the pass overall.

“If you look at the league today, that’s what a lot of teams are doing, putting everybody on one side, splitting a big tight end up on the backside and seeing what the matchup is,” Bell said. “That’s the flavor of the league right now.’

It’s left a sour taste in the Cardinals’ mouth.

“I think that’s a pattern throughout the NFL, it’s not just us,” coach Bruce Arians said.

After seeing Gonzalez, the Cardinals don’t see many high-profile tight ends the balance of the season. Owen Daniels will miss the game for Houston and Coby Fleener hasn’t emerged yet as a star. Then again, the division has stocked up and the Cards get rematches with all of their NFC West foes – Davis for San Francisco, Cook for St. Louis and Zach Miller in Seattle (while fellow tight end Kyle Davis also had a TD catch for the Seahawks.)

Stars like Davis and Graham are going to have big games against a lot of teams. That’s their strength, the kind of thing the Cardinals are still waiting and hoping to get from Rob Housler.

“There have been some cases where guys just make a heck of a play,” Powers said. “But it’s something we have been focusing on as a defense as a whole.”

 

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