Atlanta Falcons  

 

Gonzalez feels like perfect fit for Falcons' talented offense

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FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- It might not be a match made in football heaven, but it's somewhere close.

The Atlanta Falcons had 19 catches for 211 yards and two touchdowns between their three tight ends last season -- clearly the gaping hole in a unit that featured quarterback Matt Ryan (NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year), Pro Bowl running back Michael Turner (1,699 rushing yards) and Pro Bowl wide receiver Roddy White (88 catches, 1,382 yards and seven touchdowns).

Tony Gonzalez , TE
Atlanta Falcons

2008 Statistics
Catches: 96
Yards: 1,058
TDs: 10

Tony Gonzalez, in his 12th season, caught 96 passes for 1,058 yards and 10 touchdowns -- mostly from Tyler Thigpen, who was just the latest in a long list of fairly obscure quarterbacks (Elvis Grbac, Trent Green, Rich Gannon, Damon Huard and Brodie Croyle) Gonzalez has played with during his career with the Kansas City Chiefs.

For the ransom of just a 2010 second-round draft pick, the Atlanta Falcons acquired Gonzalez shortly before the draft, adding what they believe is the missing piece to a team that won 11 games in 2008 and went to the playoffs. Gonzalez, meanwhile, thinks he's been delivered to a place -- and a quarterback -- who can help him get more than lofty stats and possibly put him in the hunt for a Super Bowl berth.

"If we do it the right way, I'm not going to say unstoppable, but we should be pretty tough to stop," Gonzalez, 33, said on Friday, after his first minicamp workout with the Falcons. "It's going to be hard for defenses to scheme against us."

Hard could be an understatement.

John Amis / Associated Press
Tony Gonzalez fills a huge void over the middle for the Falcons. Here is the production from Atlanta's tight ends during the 2008 regular season:
Player Catches Yards TDs
Justin Peelle 15 159 2
Ben Hartsock 3 26 0
Jason Rader 1 26 0

By adding Gonzalez, the Falcons have more options than Little Debbie has snack cakes.

Offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey can now open up a playbook that was scaled back to some degree last season because of a rookie quarterback and the lack of a tight end to free up the middle of the field, not to mention another option in the red zone.

Atlanta will now be able to check into certain pass plays when teams are in base defensive sets, and it can run when opponents are in nickel packages. The Falcons now have the personnel to exploit the opposing personnel.

They can use two or three tight-end sets -- last year's starting tight end, Ben Hartsock, is back from a foot injury that cut his season short -- in the middle of the field or in short-yardage situations. There will be pre-snap motion galore and substitution packages that will put stress on opposing defenses at any position.

All because of Gonzalez.

"The whole point, when we were looking for a vertical, pass-catching tight end, is that he's got to be able to block," said Mularkey, a former NFL tight end. "That's been the history of this offense. You've got to be able to block, and he can. That's why he's here and why some others aren't. His (receiving) talent speaks for itself. We felt like he did what we did offensively all the way around as a complete package."

For the Falcons, it all starts with the running game and Turner. He averaged 4.5 yards per carry last season and forced teams to move at least one safety into the box on most first downs to provide help. Since there was little threat at tight end, defenses could double or roll coverages to one wide receiver and bracket the other wideout with an outside linebacker, if needed.

The threat of Gonzalez could negate some of those options.

First, should a team drop a safety into the box to stop the run, that would leave either an outside linebacker or a safety in single coverage against Gonzalez (6-foot-5, 251 pounds) -- a matchup Atlanta would take all day. Gonzalez will likely be used on routes between the hash marks -- on seam routes in zone coverages and go routes for the surprise long ball. He will be a danger in the flats and with double moves near the sideline.

Minicamp gallery
Check out the latest photos from NFL minicamps around the league, including an inside look at the Falcons' camp in Flowery Branch, Ga., and Tony Gonzalez's debut. More ...

He is still a big-play threat, catching 10 passes of more than 20 yards last season. The possibility of the long ball could take the deep/free safety away from rolling coverage to one of the wide receivers, because opposing defenses will have to man the middle of the field. That would, most likely, leave the big, speedy White and the bigger Michael Jenkins in single coverage, matchups the Falcons would, again, take all day.

And if defenses play two-deep at safety, it levels the blocking matchups in the running game and softens the middle for Turner and his backup, Jerious Norwood, to make big gains, should they get past the first level of the defense.

"He just controls the middle of the field," White said of Gonzalez. "He keeps you away from double teams and he keeps the safety in the middle of the field. You get a lot of one-on-one opportunities outside and a lot of opportunities to make big plays down the field.

"I went to the Pro Bowl and I talked to him a couple times and I told him, 'I'm campaigning for you to come to Atlanta,' and he was like, 'Come and get me.' From then on when the talks started, I was happy. Any time you get a guy like that, that makes plays, it makes it a whole lot easier for everybody."

Ryan has spent a chunk of this offseason answering questions about how the offense could get any better, especially now that opponents have so much game tape on what the Falcons did last season.

Gonzalez is the simple answer.

Ryan pointed out that aside from Gonzalez being an option in the middle of the field between the 20s, he is also a go-to option in the red zone, especially in goal-to-go situations. In addition to providing an extra body to block in the running game, Gonzalez is a first- or last-gasp option if things break down.

"That's going to be big for us throwing the ball high along the baseline in the red zone," Ryan said. "He's probably the best of all time at any position catching it in the back of the end zone and catching touchdowns. I think it will help in the middle of the field and the back of the end zone."

With Gonzalez, White, Jenkins and Brian Finneran, Ryan has four big receivers, with White being the only one shorter than 6-4. The big wideouts won their share of jump balls in traffic last season. Now, with Gonzalez, there could be less traffic for them to contend with. Gonzalez, after just one non-contact workout with the Falcons, marveled at the possibilities.

"We know where we're going and the defense doesn't," Gonzalez said. "It should be something."

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