Defense Handles Top Tight Ends

The book on Green Bay is that it can be beaten by top tight ends, such as Pittsburgh's Heath Miller, but the game-by-game facts tell a different story.

With much of the focus of the Pittsburgh Steelers' offense on quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, receivers Hines Ward and Mike Wallace, and running back Rashard Mendenhall, the Green Bay Packers' defense must be wary of veteran tight end Heath Miller.

"I tell you, Heath Miller is a very good football player," Packers coach Mike McCarthy said of the 6-foot-5, sixth-year pro on Saturday. "I have always been impressed with him from afar. Anytime you have a chance to play against a player in live action and see him up close, I really walked off the field (and thought) he's a lot bigger, more physical player than I realized, especially after the game in Pittsburgh last year. He does an excellent job, very smart. I have a lot of respect for Heath Miller."

As hype for the Super Bowl grows, analysts far and wide have posted their opinions and commentary on the weaknesses of the teams. One thought has been repeated several times, namely that the Packers' defense — especially without Brandon Chillar — is particularly susceptible to opposing tight ends.

While that argument might be fashionable, it isn't especially accurate. The table below shows exactly how opposing tight ends have performed against the Packers this season. 

Out of Green Bay's 19 games this year, an opposing tight end has had more than 100 receiving yards only once. Only four opposing tight ends had six or more receptions in a game — and two of those were in the same game, Week 4 against Detroit. Only New England's Aaron Hernandez caught multiple touchdown passes. Even then, however, he was held to 31 receiving yards.

What these observations indicate is the Green Bay defense has fallen prey to a few statistical outliers. The perception that it is vulnerable to opposing tight ends comes from the fact that these outliers often were game-altering. This, however, is a superficial analysis.

Let's begin with the Packers' first game against the Lions, when Brandon Pettigrew and Tony Scheffler combined for 14 catches for 154 yards. Neither scored a touchdown and Green Bay won the game.

The next standout tight end performance came six weeks later against the Falcons and Tony Gonzalez. His touchdown catch in the second quarter helped the Falcons eke out a three-point victory, so clearly his performance was crucial. But that touchdown catch came only moments after Gonzalez's controversial catch on fourth-and-3 in which replays that showed he had dropped the ball came far too late for coach Mike McCarthy to throw a challenge flag. While the Falcons might have won the game anyway, Gonzalez's stats from this game should be taken with a grain of salt.

More significant than these outliers has been the defense's performance against tight ends in the playoffs. Over the first three rounds of play, opposing tight ends — including Philadelphia's Brent Celek, Gonzalez and Chicago's Greg Olsen, three of the NFL's best — have combined for just six catches for 62 yards. That doesn't even take into account the job the defense did in Green Bay's final two home games against the Giants and the Bears, both of which were must-win situations. The Packers held Olsen to five catches for 29 yards and shut out Kevin Boss. In short, the defense almost has negated the contributions of opposing tight ends over the past five weeks.

The idea that Miller could have a career day in the Super Bowl seems unlikely. While Miller is recognized as being in the upper echelon of NFL tight ends and made the 2008 Pro Bowl, he is coming off a down year in which he posted a career low in touchdown catches (two) and the fewest receptions (42) and yards (512) since 2006.

"Hopefully that's the case next week," McCarthy said of his defense's recent performances against tight ends. "He is definitely one of their playmakers. He is definitely a guy that can beat you."

Game  PlayerRecYardsTDLongTargets
@ PHI  Brent Celek2320274
BUF  Jonathan Stupar214092
@ CHI  Greg Olsen5641216
   Desmond Clark1120122
DET  Brandon Pettigrew89101911
   Tony Scheffler66302510
@ WAS  Chris Cooley76903012
   Mike Sellers1220223
MIA  Anthony Fasano1221222
MIN  Visanthe Shiancoe3300146
   Jim Kleinsasser1100101
@ NYJ  Dustin Keller2450406
DAL  Jason Witten3440304
   Martellus Bennett3200153
@ MIN  Visanthe Shiancoe26063
@ ATL  Tony Gonzalez6511216
SF  Vernon Davis41261666
@ DET  Brandon Pettigrew2140113
   Tony Scheffler13032
   Will Heller1131131
@ NE  Aaron Hernandez4312135
   Rob Gronkowski1250252
NYG  Kevin Boss00003
CHI  Greg Olsen529076
   Brandon Manumaleuna00001
@ PHI  Brent Celek2250164
@ ATL  Tony Gonzalez17071
@ CHI  Greg Olsen3300135
   Kellen Davis00001

Richard Procter writes for The San Francisco Chronicle and is editor of the California Aggie.

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