Analysis Notebook: Week 7
At the age of 37 most NFL players have the word ‘former’ in front of that title, and any that are still managing to cling on to their careers are a shadow of their former greatness. Tony Gonzalez, however, is somehow still one of the best tight ends in football at 37, and he has managed this by overcoming the inevitable decline in abilities that aging brings.
The NFL covets speed beyond all else. You can’t teach speed, and nothing can blow open coverage like it. Speed is the single easiest way for a player to get open in the NFL, so consequently it’s the thing teams look for first. It isn’t the only way of getting open, however, and the best players have a variety of tricks and moves that allow them to break free from equal or even superior athletes. Antonio Gates was once Jimmy Graham, just a better athlete than anybody trying to cover him, but watch him these days — he isn’t running away from anybody, he’s not beating people with athleticism, but he has developed an arsenal of sophisticated route fakes that break him wide open from the guy trying to cover him. Gates developed his game at the same time as relying on his athleticism.
Gonzalez may never have been the most spectacular athlete at the tight end position, but at this stage in his career he wouldn’t be in the NFL anymore if speed and agility were all that mattered. He can’t beat anybody with his athleticism anymore, and though he can still shake some coverage defenders with route fakes and moves, in truth he doesn’t really get open against anybody that isn’t covering him with zones that he can find the soft spots in. So why is he drawing more coverage now than ever before in his career? Because he can catch passes with defenders draped all over him, that’s why.
Perhaps the best example came during the Jets game where there was a great example of perfect coverage being beaten by a perfect throw and, more importantly, a guy capable of extending his arms further than you can and snatching the ball out of the air where you can’t reach…all with a guy hanging on to him:
At some point you have to doff your cap and accept that you can’t stop that. Unless you can make a play on the ball itself, if it gets through to his hands there’s very little you can do to stop Gonzalez catching it — he’s just too good and his hands are too strong for you to stop.
This is simple stuff, but it is technical perfection. This is the stuff receiving coaches drill into kids from the moment they first start trying to catch footballs — extend your arms, catch the ball away from your body. Gonzalez has overcome his declining physical skills by refining his technical ones to the point of near perfection.
This isn’t a case of finding one lucky play from a couple of games ago either. There is at least one of these plays in every game Gonzalez plays, usually more than one. This week against the Buccaneers he caught a ball down the seam with MLB Mason Foster (right with him in tight coverage, naturally) all over him, trying his best to pull his arm away and free the football. He was unsuccessful:
Catching the pass in that position is one thing, having the hand and arm strength to resist the best efforts of defenders to pull them away from the football is another level. The bottom line is that Matt Ryan will throw the ball to Gonzalez even when he is blanketed by coverage — he doesn’t care — he knows that if it’s within his catch radius, he’ll bring in the football regardless of how much the defender is interfering with him. If Ryan can get the ball by the defender, Gonzalez will make the catch.
Despite Julio Jones and Roddy White (injuries not withstanding), Tony Gonzalez is the player teams most fear and have been trying to take away. When the game came down to one play against the New England Patriots late in the fourth quarter, the Patriots left Roddy White and Julio Jones in single coverage while Tony Gonzalez received this treatment:
That seems to have set the blueprint for teams dealing with Gonzalez — if we can’t stop him catching the ball once he is in a pass pattern, the only thing we can do is make sure he never gets that far. The Patriots stuck a pair of linemen on him at the line of scrimmage and double-teamed him, sandwiching him to prevent any kind of release. This wasn’t just jamming a receiver at the line, disrupting his timing and release, they had no intention of allowing a release at all.
The Jets, likely having seen the Patriots tape, applied similar tactics. Unfortunately for them they ran up against an officiating crew far more inclined to call penalties, and LB David Harris bore the brunt in the shape of yellow being tossed his way after the Jets set about mugging Gonzalez as he tried to force his way through bodies into a pass pattern. The Jets limited this approach almost entirely to the red zone, where they saw Gonzalez as at his most dangerous. The constricted field also allowed them to dedicate multiple defenders to Gonzalez without taking people too far out of position.
On this play the Jets made Gonzalez run a gauntlet of linebackers just to make the end zone. It looks like he is getting the double-team treatment just like the Patriots gave to him, but he was doubled off the line by Garrett McIntyre (No. 50) and Demario David (No. 56) before McIntyre dropped off and made way for Harris to slam into him.
Again though, we aren’t talking about something that was just an isolated incident, this was a consistent and deliberate tactic against the big tight end. Though that play was the most obvious example, and the one true triple-team Gonzalez faced, there were multiple other instances where he has drawn true double-teams as opponents fight to keep him on the line of scrimmage and out of a pass pattern they cannot stop.
Both the Patriots and Jets determined that they couldn’t stop him making plays if they allowed him to get into his route, so they logically decided that they had to prevent him ever getting that far. It wasn’t what you could call successful overall. Over those two games Gonzalez caught 22 passes for 246 yards, but the plan did seem to show some promise in the red zone. The Patriots adjusted mid-game. After Gonzalez had already gashed them for two scores, they were insistent late on that they not allow him to score again. They held him on the line with the double team and forced Ryan to aim at Roddy White, a pass deflected away by Aqib Talib. Though Gonzalez racked up big numbers against New England, when they went to that adjustment, they did successfully nullify him.
The Jets too held him scoreless using that tactic, though the penalties it drew allowed the Falcons to extend drives and score in other ways, so at best it probably goes down as a wash.
The Buccaneers this week found some new tactics to try and defend Gonzalez, going away from overwhelming him physically at the line and back to trying to cover him once he was into his route. Again though, what this meant for the rest of the defense renders its success highly questionable.
In the second quarter, with 13:29 to go Tampa Bay was trying to force the Falcons into a field goal attempt on 3rd-and-6 from just inside the 20. Inside the red zone is where Gonzalez is at his most dangerous, so it makes sense for this to be the place you would dedicate the most attention to stopping him. They jammed him at the line with Mark Barron to try and disrupt his release, but they also had Keith Tandy shoot across the field from his safety spot as they rolled to a single-high look at the snap.
This effectively took Gonzalez out of the play, but it also effectively put the right side of the defense on an island in man coverage with a pair of crossing receivers. LB Lavonte David is almost exclusively in man coverage on the opposing running back, and he was split to the slot to cover Jacquizz Rodgers. David is a pretty athletic player in his own right, but he couldn’t live with the speed out from Rodgers given the crossing receivers. When Ryan fit the ball past David he found there was no safety help and Rodgers had a huge area of space to run into for the touchdown.
The Bucs did a pretty good job of taking away Gonzalez, limiting him to only two catches for 30 yards, but they did so with schemes that were too detrimental to the rest of the defense, and allowed Matt Ryan to complete 76.9% of his passes for 273 yards, 3 TDs and a passer rating of 148.4 against them.
Tony Gonzalez might be just a few months shy of his 38th birthday, but right now he is one of the single most dangerous weapons in football, despite not being able to get open against anybody.
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