As the Vikings head into the Deep South to play the Atlanta Falcons, one of the givens is going to be the Falcons trying to take advantage of the Vikings through the air. While they have an inordinate share of deep threats, it will be the underneath guy – Tony Gonzalez – and his battles with Vikings' outside linebackers that will be this week's key matchup.
When Atlanta traded a second-round pick for the future Hall of Famer, the Kansas City Chiefs justified the move by saying Gonzalez was nearing the end of his career. However, nobody told Gonzalez, who is having another prolific season, especially in the red zone.
The conventional wisdom is that the Falcons will look to exploit the depleted Vikings secondary with perennial 100-catch receiver Roddy White, highly-touted rookie Julio Jones and speedy slot receiver Harry Douglas. That is likely what the Vikings are thinking as well, so their safeties are going to be used in providing help over the top to keep the Falcons from hitting the home-run ball deep down the field. It isn't an original strategy, which is while Gonzalez could be the primary beneficiary.
The days of Gonzo being a threat to stretch the deep seam are over. He's a possession receiver who averages about 11 yards per reception and hasn't had a catch of more than 30 yards in almost two years with the Falcons. But he has become a deadly threat near the end zone, because he is often in single coverage with linebackers and, even in his 15th NFL season, he is hard to handle one-on-one in coverage.
Through 10 games, quarterback Matt Ryan has thrown 15 touchdowns. Gonzalez has seven of them by himself – two more than White, Jones and Douglas combined. He is Ryan's favorite target in close and has proved a dependable receiver who runs precise routes and uses veteran savvy to get open.
With safeties dropping out to bracket White and Jones over the top, Gonzalez is typically left to single coverage with linebackers. Greenway and Erin Henderson have both proved capable of covering tight ends in space and have faced some of the best young TEs in the game in Jermichael Finley, Brandon Pettigrew and savvy veterans like Antonio Gates, Kellen Winslow, Greg Olsen and Jeremy Shockey. They have found themselves in weekly battles with those receivers, but perhaps none of them are more critical to their offense – with the exception of Gates – than Gonzalez is with the Falcons.
He rarely leaves the field, because he has always been a solid in-line blocker when the Falcons are pounding the ball with Michael Turner, but makes his living leaking out on play-fakes and making plays 10 yards down the field and in the end zone. Given how often the Falcons give the ball to Turner – 20 times a game on average – it is natural for the outside linebackers to sneak a peak and the backfield and charge ahead full steam when they think Turner is getting a handoff. As a result, when they bite on a play-fake, they're dead in the water with Gonzalez, who finds the soft spot in zones quickly and settles in to give Ryan an open throwing lane.
Many observers may believe that the more critical matchups will be on the outside, where the big plays are expected from White and Jones, but the more critical plays, especially when the Falcons get in scoring range, may depend on Gonzalez being able to shake off Greenway or Henderson, making this Sunday's key matchup.
John Holler has been writing about the Vikings for more than a decade for Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this story on our subscriber message board.
Key matchup: Gonzalez vs. the linebackers
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