By Scott Brown
Sunday, October 8, 2006
Ben Roethlisberger chuckled when asked if the Steelers defense will try to confuse first-year starting quarterback Philip Rivers.
"You don't know if Troy's going to do a somersault before he blitzes," Roethlisberger said, "or what's going on out there."
There is something else in tonight's nationally-televised game against the Chargers that may present Troy Polamalu, the All-Pro and apparently acrobatic safety, with a higher degree of difficulty.
That is covering Antonio Gates.
NFL tight ends have gone from blocking-first players that were generally afterthoughts in the air attack to sleek pass catchers that must be accounted for by safeties like Polamalu.
Gates isn't at the forefront of the movement but is the best model it has produced to date.
The fourth-year pro is 6-4 and 260 pounds, runs like a wide receiver and corrals passes in heavy traffic the way he once did rebounds as a standout basketball player at Kent State.
Gates has caught 170 passes for 2,065 yards and 23 touchdowns the last two seasons in becoming the prototype for the new tight end.
"They're big, they're athletic, they can run, they get great body position," Polamalu said.
They have become another source of angst for defensive coordinators since they are usually too fast for linebackers to cover and too big for safeties to handle.
The impact Gates and others have made is such that the Steelers moved up in the first round of the 2003 draft so they could select a fast, physical safety capable of handling big, athletic tight ends.
"We talked about getting Troy in the draft as a safety that can match up with some of those guys," Steelers coach Bill Cowher said. "It's not easy to do. These are guys that can line up like receivers (in) two point stances, they can create physical mismatches."
The Steelers serve as a microcosm in the recent evolution of the tight end.