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Call it Year of the Tight End

Shorts and Shells: Divisional round

Posted Jan. 16, 2012 @ 12:26 a.m. ET
By Eric Edholm

It alternatively has been the Year of Tim Tebow, Aaron Rodgers and the 15-1 Packers, Drew Brees, Suck For (Andrew) Luck, the lockout, Cam Newton, the Dream Team (and its nightmare), Rex Ryan/Plaxico Burress/Mark Sanchez/Santonio Holmes, Al Davis, Peyton Manning, the incredible leaguewide passing proliferation and the wonderful emergence of Jim Harbaugh and the 49ers.

All worthy nominees for biggest story of the NFL season, depending on your perspective.

But let's add one to the list.

We are in the golden age for tight ends. Never before have they dominated like this.

Watching Jimmy Graham and Vernon Davis pinball back and forth all over the field on divisional-round Saturday afternoon was some treat, and the ridiculous Aaron Hernandez-Rob Gronkowski duo was a Top Chef-caliber dessert in the evening.

Bill Parcells had this idea back with the Cowboys in 2006 when he drafted Anthony Fasano with the 53rd pick in the draft, despite having a breakout star in Jason Witten already at the position.

Parcells told the rookie to get ready to strap it on; he was not being brought in to ride the bench.

Said Parcells in May that year: "I feel if I can balance up that threat — put Witten and (WR) Terry (Glenn) together, Fasano and (WR Terrell) Owens together — that's going to be a good thing."

The Cowboys ran a one-back, two-TE offense similar to what the Patriots now are running. Of course, that was not nearly as nuclear as what we are seeing in New England. And with a simple adjustment — Hernandez lined up several times in the backfield and ran the ball Saturday, something they had rarely shown all season — the personnel group became all the more dangerous.

"Well, we didn't have any backs in the game in that personnel grouping," Patriots head coach Bill Belichick said. "We just had the three receivers and the two tight ends. So, that's not something we've done a lot of. You see all those receivers on the field and you're not really thinking too much about the running game defensively, so we tried to pop a couple runs in there just to keep them honest.

"We thought they might be thinking — I mean, obviously, they're thinking pass — (and) we threw the ball most every time, but we tried to get a couple runs going there."

The 49ers did not get that cute, in terms of formations. But when it was crunch time, they knew they had to go to Vernon Davis. With Michael Crabtree dropping passes left and right, Davis became the one weapon the Saints could not stop.

He caught the streak route down the left sideline to stake the 49ers to a 7-0 lead, eventually grabbing seven passes for a TE playoff-record 180 yards (14 more than Chargers TE Kellen Winslow in the famous "Epic in Miami" game).

And Davis had his T.O. moment with his second touchdown, a play called "Vernon Post" that was installed specifically for this game: catching the pass at the goal line at game's end, turning and getting crunched, and then irrigating the field with his tears of joy afterward.

"We told Alex (Smith), 'Let's go to Vernon here. It's either Vernon or nobody,'" said 49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh, who collected tight ends at Stanford like groupies. "Vernon is always a big factor in any game plan. He was singled up a lot today. (The Saints) were trying to bring heat and play man-to-man coverage.

"We won a few times with Vernon getting the separation and making the big run after catch. In the first quarter, when we got our first touchdown, (it was a) similar play to what Jimmy Graham made there in the fourth quarter."

Had it not been for Davis' heroics — and Smith's, lest we forget — the play we'd be talking about today was the play Harbaugh referenced, the amazing seam route Graham ran past Patrick Willis, catching a pass over the middle in traffic and bouncing off Donte Whitner's tackle whiff to run 66 yards for the score that gave the Saints the lead.

Winslow is a Hall of Fame tight end, and rightfully so. His 1,290-yard second season was maybe the best statistical season by a tight end ever. But we've had two Winslows this season in Gronkowski and Graham.

I thought NFL Network's Marshall Faulk had a great point when talking about tight ends dominating in this era.

"I believe it's the illegal-contact rule now," Faulk said on NFLN's Sunday-morning broadcast. "How do you slow down a big receiver? It used to be disrupting them down the field. Getting in their way, bumping them, it used to be legal.

"Now that you no longer can touch them after that five yards, the big guy can get that full head of steam and they can get going now. They can clear you out, get you out of the way, body you up, and you can't do (anything) about it."

Consider how much the position — and pro football — has changed in the receiving game. Here's a look at the evolution of the NFL's leaders at the position, in five-year increments dating back to 1991:

Year Rec. leader Rec. yards leader Tenth-leading receiver (rec.) Tenth-leading receiver (yards)
2011 99 1327 64 778
2006 89 924 50 626
2001 73 917 40 422
1996 80 1062 42 457
1991 82 808 32 410

And just as the tight ends are waxing, so waning is the era of the game-changing safety. Maybe they are related because no one seems to be able to cover these tight ends. Despite Ed Reed's greatness, which was shown on his game-sealing INT Sunday, we're clearly in the twilight of the position, at least compared to the previous generation's greatness.

Reed will hobble into the AFC title game at New England, a question mark to play. Once one of the great enforcers at the position, Brian Dawkins could not dress Saturday night. Troy Polamalu is great, but not as consistently so as he once was. Bob Sanders is out of the game as of now.

The safety play was not at its peak this weekend. Once the Broncos lost a couple of safeties to injury, they were toast. The Packers were undone by Charlie Peprah's awful shoulder-tackle attempt on Hakeem Nicks, sort of a mini tight end considering how physical he is, and then Peprah failed to get position on Nicks' Hail Mary reception at the end of the half.

There are a lot of reasons why tight ends have become the "it" position this season. But for now, we'll just sit back and enjoy the show they are putting on.

 

Niners' defensive prowess stands out in shootout

It's funny. The 49ers allowed 32 points, and I thought they played a terrific ballgame Saturday. So many reasons why.

First, all three levels of the defense had great games. The line was a force all game, with DT Justin Smith bullying his way into the backfield and NT Ray McDonald controlling the inside. Willis might have lost Graham a couple of times, but he and NaVorro Bowman (19 tackles combined) were in the middle of the action and Ahmad Brooks and Aldon Smith (two sacks, five QB hits combined) were in the backfield a lot. The secondary played its best game of the season — Donte Whitner's hit on Pierre Thomas was a game-changer, Carlos Rogers locked down and Dashon Goldson lived up to his Pro Bowl billing.

Except for the two drives to start the second quarter and the two at game's end, the 49ers were almost perfect defensively.

They do so many things well, but one underrated one: tackling in space, or what the Packers failed to do on Nicks' 66-yard TD. So many times, the Saints tried to unleash their screen game, and the Niners were all over them. When they did complete passes, the Saints' receivers often were swallowed up.

Yes, Graham got free when Whitner went for the play on the ball, but that was the exception to the rule.

"We wanted to come out and play our style of football, which is playing physical, being a great tackling team, and playing with good fundamentals, which has carried us all season," 49ers defensive coordinator Vic Fangio said.

It should be a fascinating game to watch Nicks and Victor Cruz try to get free from that coverage on Sunday. In the first matchup between these teams, Cruz had six catches for 84 yards but was targeted 11 times. The 49ers were really one of the first teams to respect Cruz and give him the proper coverage he deserves. But they most feared Nicks, who was held to two catches (on four passes thrown his way) for 41 yards, although one was a 32-yard TD.

Rogers had two interceptions in that game, once when Eli Manning tried to hit Mario Manningham, once when Manning went for Cruz.

 

Flacco hasn't answered critics yet

Early on, Joe Flacco had the scowl. The same one as when he got ornery with the media about the game likely not being to his credit if the Ravens won.

Well, the Ravens won — and yet, what can we say about Flacco?

He was gifted some nice field position because of some Texans turnovers and had some success firing outside the numbers early in the game, but he kept going to that well, even as it dried up. The Texans kept pressuring and playing good coverage on the outside. As a result, he was sacked five times and missed on a lot of passes — 13 of the 27 he threw hit the ground.

Sure, there were a few drops in there. His receivers did not make the plays they had to in all cases.

But neither did Flacco. He didn't have his Alex Smith moment in this game. The Texans overwhelmed the Ravens' offensive line at times, but Flacco needed to get rid of the ball sooner.

Now he heads to New England, needing to be far, far better. The Ravens won by a score against a Texans team that was minus-four in turnovers and had a struggling third-string QB under center. Tom Brady won't be giving the ball away that easily. The Ravens' defense doesn't appear to be on a 2001-like run here; it needs some help from the offense. Does it have an answer for the Patriots' tight ends?

Flacco has no control over that. He only can make the throws to the receivers who are open and evade the pass rushers whom his linemen are facing. But he must improve in his next chance, or the calls will come flying in that he is just another good quarterback who can't take the next step. After all, this could be Ray Lewis' final game. If that's not motivation enough, then what is?

 

Yates has time to think about future

When it was all said and done, T.J. Yates was a savior. Lesser rookies would have lost this thing long ago, even though the Texans had built a nice cushion in what was a down AFC South this season.

But he also held up in a tough situation (getting thrown in against the Falcons), won a huge game for the team (the final-drive victory over the Bengals in the regular season) and showed some skills after early yips against the Bengals and Ravens in the playoffs.

Allow me to explain the last statement. There's no excusing Yates' two early picks or his late-game forced-pass pick to Ed Reed, which effectively ended the Texans' best chance to win. He pushed the issue way too much when the clock was in their favor and the run game would have been a real weapon on that drive.

But in between there, he showed he is an NFL quarterback. Not a career backup, but a player worthy of a starting chance again.

It will have to be weird for Yates, heading into an offseason of unknown after what has been a year that never was supposed to be. Had he never taken a snap for this team this season, going into 2012 with a chance to be Matt Schaub's backup would be a pleasure, not a curse to lament.

But now that he has tasted some success, Yates can't help but feel a little weird about next season. Schaub is the understood starter, although the Texans are not as married to him as most people believe. For 2012, however, they probably are, unless he struggles. That means Yates won't play unless Schaub gets hurt.

It's entirely possible we don't hear his name much for the next calendar year if things go as planned for the Texans. But I doubt we've heard the last of Yates. With some improved arm strength and decision making, he could be good.

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