Antonio Gates is the premier tight end in the NFL and is the centerpiece of San Diego's passing offense.
While he has had what would be considered and off year for him with only 75 receptions for 984 yards and nine touchdowns — mostly career lows, or right near the bottom for his career — his production has declined because defenses have begun to focus their attention solely on him when it comes to game day, since the Chargers do not possess a consistent threat at wide receiver.
The attention the Colts paid to him in Week 10 was obvious, as they committed two to three defenders to his area of the field by rolling the zone in his direction.
That particular strategy has paid off historically, since Gates has averaged less than 35 yards per game against Indianapolis over the course of his career and has only one touchdown reception during that period.
The amount of attention that Gates garners on every down has considerable value and cannot be replaced. What can be fairly easily replaced — and this was evidenced in the Wild Card victory over Tennessee — is his production in the offense, particularly against the Colts.
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It is obvious that backup tight end Brandon Manumaleuna cannot pick up the slack on his own, considering that he had only ten receptions for 86 yards and one touchdown for the entire 2007 season and has only 90 catches total in his seven year career, but he did have two catches for 18 yards against the Titans in relief of Gates.
Where Manumaleuna is dangerous for Indianapolis is as a blocker, since he has the size (6 feet, 2 inches, 288 pounds) and the tenacity to dominate at the point of attack, especially when matched up against the smaller linemen and linebackers of the Colts.
He is a much more accomplished blocker than Gates, is more experienced in the running game, and will open up larger holes for Tomlinson on the perimeter and in cut-back lanes and will help to stretch and tire the defense throughout the course of the game.
Jackson and Chambers more than compensated for Gates in terms of production against Tennessee, with each posting over 100 yards receiving. Most of those yards came on deep passes when these two men were able to get behind the coverage and burn the Titans for long gains.
Though the Colts are known for their ability to keep things in front of them and not allow the big play on defense, they will need to pick their poison on Sunday.
Either they can sit back in their zones and go as deep as the deepest receiver, with Antoine Bethea most likely playing center field in a Cover 1 scheme, since Bob Sanders will probably be playing closer to the line, and let the Chargers slowly pick them apart with draw plays and underneath routes -- especially to Tomlinson, scatback Darren Sproles, and fullback Andrew Pinnock , or crowd the line of scrimmage and risk giving up a long touchdown to either of San Diego's big, fast receivers.
Tony Dungy and Ron Meeks will most likely choose the first option, forcing Philip Rivers and the Chargers offensive line to sustain long drives.
But this is the playoffs, and although the Colts are tremendously disciplined on defense and are usually not the first to flinch in a battle of wills, the intensity of the spotlight may get to them and they may start to take chances.
The interesting thing about this injury is that the Colts and their fans should hope that Gates tries to "tough this one out" and play in Sunday's game. Toe injuries can be very tricky, can make footing unreliable, and one even got the best of Jonathan Ogden for much of the season.
If Gates starts attempting to run and cut in that condition, Indianapolis can sit back and gauge how much attention they need to pay to him and reap the rewards, since the Chargers offense is obviously going to be looking his way.
They have used Gates as a crutch for far too long and may come to realize that they are a much more potent offense without him. But they may not realize it until after they've been eliminated.