Interestingly, it comes at a time when he is struggling – or more accurately adjusting to a bump in the road.
A few short weeks ago, Antonio Gates was tied with Derrick Mason for the NFL lead in receptions. Since then, defenses have buckled down on the Pro-Bowl-to-be tight end and limited to four catches over the last two games, including just one in last Sunday's win against Tampa. The two-game output matches his worst output in any other game this year. Prior to this stretch of the season, Gates was held to four catches on two occasions and had nine games with five or more hauls.
That came to an end as the Bucs and Broncos matched up some of their best guys on San Diego's number one receiving threat.
In just his second year, his learning curve has been grandiose. Nobody could have predicted that he would catch on so fast.
"The one unknown for any young player is how quickly they can develop and it certainly relates to a young man who has not played football in five years," head coach Marty Schottenheimer said. "We liked his athletic ability when we brought him in here as a free agent. I think the quality that stands out besides his athletic ability is the fact that he's very confident and things don't bother him if things don't happen to be going his way."
That is definitely the case now. He is seeing defensive adjustments that veterans must maneuver around and some of the schemes he is facing for the first time.
The NFL moves at a fast pace and the chess game continues to evolve faster than Bobby Fischer.
React – counteract. And the ball is in Gates' court. Given his basketball background it is something he should be familiar with.
"It has been interesting because obviously they're trying to do whatever they can to frustrate me," Gates said. "Right now, I'm just trying to do anything I can to help this offense. It has been going well for us as an offense, but not as well for me individually. As long as we're winning, I can lean to deal with it."
It isn't for a lack of trying. Gates works just as feverishly on his blocking as he does his route running but the headlines grabbers are defined by third down catches and touchdowns.
"It's making it a little more challenging to get him the ball," Schottenheimer said of the increased coverages placed on Gates. "What we're seeing is people banging him on the line of scrimmage and when he escapes from that there is someone else around him stalking him to make sure that he doesn't get any clear opportunities. What we're working to do is just to keep moving him around and create opportunities for him where he has a chance to get ideal match-ups."
With Keenan McCardell iffy for this weekend, Gates will be looked upon to provide the spark.
"I knew I was going to have an imperative role to play this year," Gates began. "I never imagined something to this standard, but at the same time, I knew my role was going to be imperative in this offense."
Gates is just one touchdown shy of tying an NFL record for most touchdowns by a tight end. To tie the record in front of family and friends would be great, to break the record would be awesome.
It isn't necessarily about the stats for Gates. The record would be nice, but wins are ever sweeter. And because of his humble approach, his fan club in San Diego continues to grow each week.
Brown with Envy:
"Gates is the real deal, there's no question about that," Browns interim coach Terry Robiskie said. "He's a playmaker. They put him everywhere. He can line up out wide or tight. They do a great job trying to match him up on linebackers, match up him on defensive backs."
Meanwhile, Cleveland's Kellen Winslow Jr. has missed the last 11 games with a broken fibula.
Robiskie and Chargers offensive coordinator Cam Cameron were roommates when they coached with the Redskins, so it's particularly frustrating for Robiskie to watch his friend be able to deploy Gates while Winslow is in the shop.
"A lot of what he's doing with Gates is what we had set early in the year for Kellen Winslow. It's kind of the year you were looking for with Kellen."
Denis Savage can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Gates has own Dawg Pound in San Diego
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