A Heap of trouble

The Oakland Raiders, who in the off-season spent considerable time trying to shore up their defense -- in the middle of the field in general and dealing with tight ends in particular, face another test in Week 2 against the Baltimore Ravens.

Having faced Antonio Gates of the San Diego Chargers in Week 1 and seeing Gates whip rookie Michael Huff on one route and score a touchdown on another, Todd Heap of the Baltimore Ravens awaits in Week 2.

"We've got things that we've got to patch up. We know we are playing a very good football team in the Ravens; the talent speaks for itself," Raiders head coach Art Shell said. "Coming there we know we've got to shore up things."

Defending tight ends has been a trouble spot for the Raiders for the past three years, a weakness which has been exploited by AFC West opponents.

Besides Gates, the division features Kansas City tight end Tony Gonzalez and a Denver team which uses two and sometimes three tight ends who are crucial to the bootleg game run by quarterback Jake Plummer.

In the 2006 NFL Draft, three of Oakland's first four choices were related to their difficulties against tight ends. Michael Huff, the No. 7 pick of the draft, was installed as the starting strong safety.

The man he replaced, Derrick Gibson, was a former first-round pick who has had trouble remaining healthy and whose best skill is run defense near the line of scrimmage.

In the second round, Oakland took linebacker Thomas Howard in large part because of his athleticism and pass coverage potential.

If that wasn't enough, the Raiders took linebacker Darnell Bing in the fourth round. Bing was a strong safety at USC whom the Raiders moved to linebacker to further bolster their pass defense against tight ends and backs out of the backfield.

Bing, however, was lost for the season when he suffered a "stinger" which forced the club to place him on injured reserve. Bing is still undergoing tests to see if he has a disk problem in his back.

Gibson, ironically, was a part of a 2001 draft-day dispute in the Raiders draft room because there was support for taking Heap.

Raiders coach Jon Gruden in particular wanted Heap, who he saw as a big, reliable and athletic target to replace the error-prone Ricky Dudley.

When Oakland's turn came up at No. 28, owner Al Davis took Gibson, who he saw as the sort of physical, hard-hitting safety the club had been lacking. Heap went at No. 31 to the Ravens.

The Raiders' efforts to improve their pass defense over the middle didn't stop with the draft. Kirk Morrison, an outside linebacker last season, was installed at middle linebacker this season and has shown a knack for defending dump-off passes over the middle which often victimized the Raiders in past years when the middle linebackers were Danny Clark, Napoleon Harris and Greg Biekert.

Making Heap more formidable for Baltimore this season is the presence of veteran quarterback Steve McNair, who has a long history in Tennessee of relying on tight ends such as Frank Wycheck to rack up first downs.

He picked up where left off with the Ravens Sunday in a 27-0 win over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, hitting Heap five times for 46 yards and tight end Daniel Wilcox three times for 52 yards and a touchdown.


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