Breaking Down Antonio Gates' Role in San Diego Chargers' 2013 Offense

Rick Devereux@rick_devereuxContributor IIOctober 4, 2013

Sep 29, 2013; San Diego, CA, USA; San Diego Chargers tight end Antonio Gates (85) gets past Dallas Cowboys middle linebacker Sean Lee (50) on his way to a 56-yard touchdown during the first half at Qualcomm Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Robert Hanashiro-USA TODAY Sports
Robert Hanashiro-USA TODAY

The San Diego Chargers are a surprising 2-2 after the first month of play in Mike McCoy’s first year as San Diego's head coach and Tom Telesco’s first year as the team's general manager.

There were questions before the season started if the offensive line had improved at all. CBS Sports’ Pete Prisco said tackles King Dunlap and D.J. Fluker would struggle in pass protection. If Prisco's concerns about Dunlap and Fluker turned out to be true, then Charger fans could expect another horrible season from quarterback Philip Rivers and the San Diego offense.

It turns out San Diego’s offensive line has done just fine, allowing just six sacks and a league-low nine quarterback hits.

That pass protection has allowed Philip Rivers to be considered a legitimate MVP candidate. Rivers is second to Peyton Manning in completion percentage (73.9 percent), passing touchdowns (11), QB rating (118.8) and percentage of throws that result in a first down (44.4). Rivers’ 1,199 passing yards is seventh-most in the NFL.

Head coach Mike McCoy instituted a new scheme that allowed more short and intermediate routes. McCoy told’s Peter King that the new offense would elevate Rivers’ completion percentage and predicted the veteran quarterback would complete 70 percent of his throws.

Pro Football Focus (subscription required) said the shorter routes have helped Rivers.

Rivers is getting the ball out much quicker at the start of this season—his average throw is 2.29 seconds with 66 percent of his throws released in 2.5 seconds or less—but, at the same time, he is being more productive when he does hold the ball, posting a league-high passer rating of 139.4 on pass attempts when he holds the ball for 2.6 seconds or longer.

Meanwhile, tight end Antonio Gates is also having a resurgent season. It appears to be a classic case of “the chicken or the egg,” when trying to account for the revitalized play of both Rivers and Gates: Is the QB making the tight end look good, or is the tight end making the QB look good?

The short answer?

Before the season started, Gates was upset that he was No. 73 on the NFL Top 100 list. He thought he deserved a higher spot, but some debated if he even deserved to be on the list at all. (Remember this?)

Through four games Gates has 25 receptions. Only Cleveland’s Jordan Cameron (33 catches through five games) and New OrleansJimmy Graham (27) have more catches among tight ends. Graham (458 yards) is the only tight end with more receiving yards than Gates’ 364 yards through four games. (Cameron has 396 yards through five games.)

Gates was slowed with toe and foot injuries the past two years, but he is on pace to have the best season in his 11-year career. If he keeps up this pace, Gates will finish with 100 receptions for 1,456 yards and eight touchdowns.

For some perspective, Gates’ three best seasons were 2004, 2005 and 2009. In 2004, his second year in the NFL, Gates caught 81 passes for 964 yards and 13 touchdowns. The next year he caught 89 for 1,101 yards and 10 touchdowns. In 2009, Gates grabbed 79 balls for 1,157 yards and eight scores.

Gates' durability issues—he has played in all 16 games in a season just three times in the previous 10 years—makes it unlikely he will reach the century mark in receptions.

But count Gates out at your own risk. McCoy and new offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt have utilized Gates’ strengths to the fullest and have used the veteran TE to help get other receivers open.

Gates has always had a knack for finding the open spot against zone coverage. Commentators love to point out his basketball background to explain his success, saying that his ability to post up defenders basketball allows him to shield safeties and linebackers when catching passes from Rivers.

In actuality Gates does a magnificent job of waiting for the linebackers to drop into coverage, then sets down in the areas just vacated by those same linebackers.

This was apparent in the win over Dallas.

Gates hesitated just a step at the snap of the ball to allow the three Cowboy linebackers to read pass and drop into their zones.

Gates' slight hesitation allowed him to slip underneath the linebackers and gain six yards.

The next play, Gates went into motion, and the linebacker followed him across the field, which indicated to Rivers that Dallas was in man-to-man.

Gates motioned all the way to the sideline, and the Cowboys cornerback jumped out to cover Gates, leaving a linebacker on Danny Woodhead. That switch is exactly what Rivers and the offense wanted.

Dallas switched the corner and linebacker in order to get a better pass defender on the more dangerous pass-receiving threat. But the switch allowed Woodhead to beat the linebacker up the sidelines and into the end zone for the first touchdown of the game.

Gates also showed off his skills against man coverage in the Week 3 road loss to the Tennessee Titans.

Bernard Pollard, the Titans' strong safety, was in press coverage against Gates, perhaps believing that he could either outmuscle or outrun Gates, or both. Gates stutter-stepped during his release at the line of scrimmage and avoided Pollard’s attempt at a bump. He then ran a perfect corner route, beating Pollard to the sideline.

Finally, it helps to have the hand-eye coordination Gates has. Athletes who can regularly make one-handed catches look as easy and effortless as Gates does are few and far between.

If the O-line continues to keep Rivers upright, if the coaches continue to utilize quick passes and if Gates continues to stay injury free, San Diego fans can expect one of the best seasons ever by a tight end in NFL history.