As the Jacksonville Jaguars studied the San Diego Chargers this week, tight end Antonio Gates probably received a decent amount of attention.
Considering how porous their pass defense seemed last week, the Jaguars should've spent a whole meeting on him.
Edging the Broncos in a 24-17 season-opening victory at home, Jacksonville gave up 295 yards through the air. Denver quarterback Kyle Orton, a league-average talent with an unspectacular corps of receivers, had the NFL's sixth-best stat line last Sunday against the Jaguars' secondary.
Heading to San Diego this weekend, a repeat of that performance will earn Jacksonville a worse whipping by Philip Rivers, the Chargers' razor-sharp quarterback. Odds are, it would also even the Jaguars' win-loss record at 1-1.
Luckily, Jacksonville won't have to deal with Pro Bowler holdout Vincent Jackson. San Diego's passing game is still threatening, but it lives and dies with Gates—a three-time All-Pro, six-time Pro Bowler, member of the NFL's All-Decade (2000s) Team, and the first tight end taken in your fantasy draft.
The Antonio Gates.
Now, how in the world are the Jaguars going to handle that?
Watching tape from last week's win against Denver, Jacksonville won't have to fast-forward past the first play from scrimmage to see why Antonio Gates poses a problem.
Lined up at their own 21-yard line, the Broncos sent tight end Daniel Graham on a short drag route across the face of the Jaguars' defense. He took a few steps forward, made his cut, and popped out into a wide open space to Kyle Orton's left.
Graham, who's more renowned for his blocking prowess than his open-field speed, caught an easy toss and chugged ahead unopposed. After a 28-yard gain, Jacksonville's Justin Durant finally pulled him down.
Replace Graham with Gates and Orton with Philip Rivers, and that's an easy 79-yard touchdown.
Ideally, the Jaguars would be free to match Antonio Gates with veteran linebacker Daryl Smith.
Smith's stat line against the Broncos—five tackles, forced fumble, and the game-clinching interception—is only missing a sack as an expression of his full range of talents. Last year, in addition to his stout presence in run defense and heads-up coverage, Smith was Jacksonville's most effective pass rusher when he blitzed.
But in that ideal world, the Jaguars would have three such players.
Gates will probably find himself in Smith's zone a few times Sunday, but Jacksonville's multi-tool linebacker is too versatile to get stuck with one assignment for the whole game.
After managing just 14 sacks as a team in 2009—worst in the NFL by a wide margin—the Jaguars' retooled pass rush roared to life in the season opener against Denver.
Free agent signee Aaron Kampman, rookie Tyson Alualu, and second-year nose guard Terrance Knighton all got in on the action, racking up three total sacks. Outside of one drive late in the first half, Kyle Orton never had enough time to wait for his deep targets to get open.
Jacksonville won't be able to rein in Antonio Gates by forcing him into pass protection, as their opponents sometimes do with Marcedes Lewis. That's not his function.
But Gates' route tree is considerably bigger than that of the average NFL tight end. Simply put, the Chargers aren't sending him on little five-yard outs as Philip Rivers' safety valve.
If the Jaguars' front four and blitzing linebackers can create some chaos in the Chargers' backfield, they'll force Rivers to check down to his short-yardage options.
If Antonio Gates gets through Jacksonville's front seven on a seam route, watch out.
Anthony Smith and Sean Considine, the starting safeties in the Jaguars' Cover-2 defense, are both heavy hitters inclined to lend a hand in run support. But their 10 combined tackles against Denver were as much a product of their inability to make plays on the ball in the air.
Gates' receiver-like quickness and technique is only half of the threat he poses. Once he's matched up against defensive backs, there are few in the NFL capable of out-muscling him for receptions.
Neither Smith nor Considine is likely to ring Gates' bell hard enough to discourage him from going long.
Jacksonville's four down linemen will be pressing forward to quicken the ticker on Philip Rivers' internal clock, forcing shorter passes.
Behind them, linebackers Daryl Smith and Kirk Morrison will have an eye on the running lanes as they hold down short zone coverage. Safeties Anthony Smith and Sean Considine will hang back a bit as the last line of defense against San Diego's vertical passing attack.
That leaves Justin Durant, the Jaguars' second-round pick in 2007, to stare down Antonio Gates from his strong-side linebacker spot.
Last year, Jacksonville tried Durant out at middle linebacker. The returns led to the Jaguars' aggressive pursuit of 2010 NFL Draft prospect Sean Lee and the eventual signing of Morrison. Yeah, it was that bad.
But it was Durant's natural talent at outside linebacker that prompted the experiment in the first place. He might not stay in lockstep with Gates all day, but he's enough of an athlete to give him fits near the line.
Presumably, the Jaguars will match second-year starting cornerback Derek Cox against Legedu Naanee, the faster of the Chargers' top two active wideouts.
Last week, Jacksonville head coach Jack Del Rio benched Cox during the defense's last series. After getting burnt badly by Denver's Brandon Lloyd on a deep route and Eddie Royal on a run after the catch, Del Rio reckoned Cox's confidence had "slipped."
Naanee isn't as nimble as Royal in the open field, but Lloyd's 41-yard grab is cause for concern. Despite top-shelf physical talent, Cox is as hit-or-miss when closing on the ball as he was in his rookie campaign.
A pair of 4.4-second 40-yard dash runners, Cox and Naanee will likely streak past the Jaguars' safeties at least once Sunday. If Rivers has time to make the throw, it's hard to be confident that Cox can defend it.
If Cox and Naanee are left to duke it out on one sideline as expected, former All-Pro Rashean Mathis will have the tall task of defending the 6'5", 226-pound Malcolm Floyd.
Unlike Cox, Mathis' quickness and veteran savvy allow him to stay close and in lockstep with his receiver. Against Denver, he nearly intercepted Kyle Orton on a quick slant by cutting under Eddie Royal's outstretched arms at the last second.
Were Vincent Jackson active, Mathis would have to be wary of getting left in the dust on a fly route. The main problem presented by Floyd, though, is the five-inch advantage he'll have in jump-ball situations.
Outside of the red zone, that won't be enough to catch Philip Rivers' eye. Floyd was targeted 12 times in San Diego's season-opening loss last week, but he only managed three receptions.
Barring a fade-route touchdown, that stat line will dip down further this week against Mathis.
The post-draft and preseason hype around San Diego's Ryan Mathews advertised him as an instant workhorse back, a borderline first-round fantasy draft pick, and a day one fill-in for former All-Pro Charger LaDainian Tomlinson.
Then he took the field.
Granted, San Diego's Monday night loss was Mathews' first professional start. The Chargers traded up to draft him 12th overall for the talent he'll become as much as the talent he (allegedly) is.
But he looked as tentative as the muddy Arrowhead Stadium field he ran on, eking out 77 yards on 20 touches as his offense sputtered for most of the game. Out of his gains, 15 yards came on one run that ended in a fumble.
Between Mathews and an offensive line that couldn't pry open Kansas City's defensive front, Jacksonville's safeties should feel safe cheating back to anticipate the pass.
A wide-eyed rookie running back, an ineffective offensive line, and two caricatures of speed and size as the top options at receiver. The San Diego Chargers should be pushovers, right?
Wrong. Philip Rivers wasn't voted to the Pro Bowl twice based on his charm, as current Chicago Bears quarterback Jay Cutler can attest.
As component parts of the Chargers' offense, Mathews, Naanee, and Floyd aren't overwhelming, and the line has been hampered by the absence of left tackle Marcus McNeill. Fill-in starter Brandyn Dombrowski needed help against Kansas City's Tamba Hali, which limited San Diego's variety of personnel packages.
And it practically goes without saying that the presence of Vincent Jackson would bump this group up a tier.
Throw in a hostile crowd and pouring rain, and it's shocking that Rivers had any success last week, let alone coming within two red zone incompletions of pulling even late. In terms of reading the defense and distributing the football, he's one of the NFL's best.
Odds are, Jacksonville's defense won't be able to steal the Chargers' thunder in front of a supportive crowd for San Diego's home opener.
Antonio Gates and Philip Rivers are too talented, their chemistry is too time-tested, and the Jaguars' secondary is too leaky. Whether it's the pass rush, linebacker Justin Durant, or one of their Cover-2 safeties at fault, Gates will break contain at least a handful of times.
Inevitably, Rivers will find him. Even as Kansas City double- and triple-covered Gates, the two connected five times for 76 yards and a score.
But the rest of Jacksonville's individual match-ups are very winnable. It's possible that Gates' numbers will spike while the offense around him falters. If the Jaguars' offense can find 24 points again this week, they'll stand a good chance of remaining undefeated.
Long story short, project Gates for around 90 yards and a score on eight catches. Whether that's enough to win will be out of his hands.