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Year of the tight end taxes Bucs
A tight end trend is pushing Tampa Bay's cover 2 defense.
By ROGER MILLS
Published November 20, 2004
TAMPA - It doesn't happen often, once every decade or so.
In fact, the last time a tight end led any conference in receptions was in 1994, when the Patriots' Ben Coates topped the AFC with 96 catches for 1,174 yards and seven touchdowns.
But like everything else cyclic in the NFL, the position's popularity is on an upswing, and in a big way.
Entering this weekend's games, four tight ends are among the top 15 reception leaders in the NFL. Two - San Francisco's Eric Johnson, who plays against the Bucs on Sunday, and Antonio Gates of San Diego, where the Bucs play on Dec. 12 - are among the top 10.
Last season, only the Chiefs' Tony Gonzalez finished among the top 20 in receptions.
"I think it's the cycle of the NFL," said Falcons offensive coordinator Greg Knapp, whose tight end, Alge Crumpler, has 35 catches for 559 yards and three TDs. "This is my 10th year in the league and I don't think I have ever seen this kind of quality and depth at the tight end position."
The 2004 class, which ironically does not feature injured first-round pick Kellen Winslow, has some impressive credentials.
Johnson's 57 catches make him the leader in the NFC. He is second in the league to Titans receiver Derrick Mason with 59 catches. For perspective, Johnson has more catches than receivers Terrell Owens (55), Isaac Bruce (55), Hines Ward (54) and Joe Horn (54).
Gates and Cowboys tight end Jason Witten each have 54 receptions and Gonzalez has 49.
"Now, it seems like it's the year of the tight end," Bucs defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin said. "We've hit some good ones. I looked at the (stats) and saw Johnson. Gosh, I knew he was the leading receiving tight end in the league with 57 catches, but lo and behold he's the No. 2 in the whole league!"
San Francisco coach Dennis Erickson said the recent popularity of certain zone defenses, such as the Cover 2 run by the Bucs, has affected the role of the tight end. By its scheme, the Cover 2 offers some room down the middle of the field for a tight end who is quick enough to pile up catches.
Interestingly, in the Bucs' games against Kansas City and Atlanta, Gonzalez (nine catches for 123 yards) and Crumpler (four catches for 118 yards) were responsible for significant damage to the defense.
"You're seeing the tight ends involved a heck of a lot more in receptions than you ever have and a lot of it is because people are playing a lot of Cover 2 and doing some different things that open the tight end up in the middle," Erickson said.
One explanation for the big numbers is that teams have recognized that a pass-catching tight end can be as valuable as a blocking tight end and that there's a place on the roster for both.
"You're flexing them out, you're motioning them, you're doing different things and you always have a second or third tight end that's a bigger body that you use in the running situations," Erickson said. "I think you see that throughout the league, where you have your receiver and then a guy who can do some things blocking-wise."
Many think the gaudy numbers are more an indication of the talent pool at the position than a leaguewide trend.
"First of all, they are good tight ends," Kiffin said. "If you don't have a good tight end, you're not going to give him the football."
It's a strong argument. Gates, Johnson, Crumpler, Witten and Gonzalez are all in the prime of the careers and play with tremendous athleticism.
"Teams are using tight ends a little more because there's a good group of tight ends in the league," Johnson said. "I feel like five or six years ago, the league went away from the athletic receiving type tight end and they've gotten back to it. There's just a lot of good pass-catching tight ends right now and teams are using that to their strength."
Being a former receiver helps.
"Playing receiver in college, we aired it out a lot and that gave me a lot of practice doing that," Johnson said. "I feel like I've got some good quickness, can read the zone. And I know how to push a defender before I break."
But even a 10-year veteran like Ken Dilger is enjoying a career revival. Through nine games, Dilger has 24 catches (two more than last season's total) for 233 yards, which includes touchdown receptions of 45 yards against the Saints and 22 yards against the Falcons.
Some of it, Dilger said, is simple mathematics. The teams with tight ends leading in receptions are teams with limited depth or injuries at the receiver position.
"How many viable receivers do (the 49ers) have?" he said. "You've got a young guy like Eric Johnson who can move well and can outrun a linebacker, he's going to catch a lot of balls. ... Before Keenan (McCardell) went out (to San Diego), who did they really have? We've got (Michael) Clayton, but who's the second receiver? We don't have anyone who's (experienced). (Joey) Galloway's been back, Joe Jurevicius has been back, but they are both kind of ailing a little bit. Now, all of a sudden, I'm open and making plays."
Knapp said there could be one other subtle influence, the blitz. With the NFL asking officials to call contact by defensive backs downfield, defensive coordinators have gone to the blitz more to save the cornerback from embarrassment.
"But the more you blitz, the more the quarterback is going to look for a quick outlet in open space and a lot of the time that's the tight end," Knapp said.