Posted November 13, 2012

Second Read: Tony Gonzalez, Jimmy Graham lead league-wide TE outburst

Second Read

Tony Gonzalez caught the 100th and 101st touchdowns of his career in Week 10. (Manny Flores/Icon SMI)

“Second Read” rewinds the tape after each NFL weekend to determine why the games played out the way that they did … and what it all may mean for the rest of the season.

It was a remarkable weekend for tight ends around the NFL. A dozen TEs scored 15 total touchdowns — and the showcase of the impressive play from that position took place in New Orleans.

The Falcons’ Tony Gonzalez and Saints’ Jimmy Graham engaged in a thrilling mano-a-mano matchup. Graham’s team came out on top, 31-27, but that was far from Gonzalez’s fault. The ageless Atlanta tight end hauled in 11 passes for 122 yards and two touchdowns. Rather amazingly, he also appeared to be open on a 4th-and-goal incompletion that Matt Ryan tried to fit in to Roddy White late in the fourth quarter.

Graham, meanwhile, averaged 20.9 yards per catch (seven receptions for 146 yards) and scored twice himself.

The Falcons attacked Graham mainly with two guys: linebacker Stephen Nicholas and safety William Moore. But that pair botched coverage on Graham’s second TD — Graham beat a jam from Nicholas at the line and Moore was late closing — and no one covered Graham on a blown defensive play for the TE’s first TD.

The Saints, meanwhile, tried just about everything to limit Gonzalez: bringing Roman Harper or Malcolm Jenkins down, playing man with linebackers, even dropping Will Smith in a zone look once. Nothing worked. Gonzalez was targeted 15 times for his 11 completions, with one terrible drop to end Atlanta’s comeback chances late.

What else jumped out on the Week 10 game film? Some thoughts:

1. Kyle Rudolph helped Christian Ponder in a big way Sunday: Before we turn our attention away from Sunday’s sensational tight end play, a nod to Rudolph, who had seven catches for 64 yards and played a key role in Minnesota’s win over Detroit.

Ponder’s second pass of the day was a beautiful 54-yard bomb to Jarius Wright. After that, though, he played it a lot closer to the vest in the passing game, completing the majority of his passes within 10 yards of the line and never again throwing deeper than 15 yards downfield.

Why that worked (aside from the obvious Adrian Peterson domination) was that Rudolph mustered consistent success. The Lions paid heavy attention to Rudolph in the red zone, bracketing him with multiple defenders — as Atlanta attempted to do with Graham. But Rudolph was able to slip outside the hash marks and find openings, which is what he did on his touchdown grab.

With Percy Harvin out of the lineup, Rudolph served as Ponder’s go-to guy through the air. And the tight end delivered.

2. Ryan Tannehill’s no-good, very bad day: Tannehill finished Miami’s 37-3 loss with a miserable 42.4 QB rating. He tossed three interceptions on the day, each worst than the last — and all of them came when he had time and a pocket from which to throw.

Akeem Ayers worked Tannehill twice in the first half, dropping in zone coverage to deflect a pass into Colin McCarthy’s arms early, then jumping an Anthony Fasano route for an INT of his own. Later, Tannehill fired one right into the numbers of Zach Brown.

Tennessee was judicious with its blitzes and it’s hard to say that the Titans’ pass rush forced any of Tannehill’s errors. The Titans brought extra pressure on two of those plays, but Miami’s line did a tremendous job accounting for the pass rush. Tannehill still rushed his deliveries, resulting in big mistakes.

3. Cincinnati’s O-line dominated the Giants: Chalk this up as one of the more surprising developments of Week 10. The Bengals absolutely stuffed New York’s terrific pass rush, and seeing it happen is just as incredible to watch a second or third time.

The Giants recorded just three QB hurries and no sacks on 30 Andy Dalton pass attempts. Dalton can get rattled when pressured, but New York did nothing to fluster him. Give a ton of credit to Bengals’ right tackle Andre Smith, who had a tough outing in Week 9 against Denver, only to bounce back and stymie Justin Tuck Sunday.

4. Who is going to help Brandon Marshall?: Marshall has been playing at an elite level this season. Despite a messy weather night Sunday (not to mention an injury to Jay Cutler), Marshall hauled in eight passes for 107 yards against a Texans defense going out of its way to limit him.

But the Bears continue to have problems finding other outlets in the pass game. Earl Bennett and Devin Hester combined for three catches and all of 13 yards; tight end Kellen Davis dropped at least two passes.

There should be openings, too. Houston blitzed on more than half of Chicago’s passing attempts, while paying extra attention to Marshall. Which means that the other Bears’ receivers were in one-on-one coverage or faced soft zone looks all night. They still couldn’t work their way open. Will Alshon Jeffery’s return from injury ease Chicago’s woes? It had better, because no one else is helping much.

5. How New England deals with Aaron Hernandez’s injury: Remember when the Patriots released Deion Branch just prior to the regular season? It feels like ages ago — mainly because Branch since re-signed with New England and took back a key role in the offense.

With Hernandez out of the lineup, rather than try to force Michael Hoomanawanui or Daniel Fells into a pass-catch role, the Patriots have upped Branch’s snaps. When Hernandez participated in Week 7 against the Jets, Branch was on the field for just 17 passing plays; Sunday, minus Hernandez, the Patriots ran Branch out on 35 of 43 Tom Brady pass attempts.

In fact, only Brandon Lloyd, Wes Welker and Rob Gronkowski have been seen more consistently during passing downs than Branch this season. It’s just another example of how versatile New England’s attack can be.

6. Denver took Cam Newton out of his game from the get-go: More on this matchup here, in a glowing review of Von Miller’s game. But Miller wasn’t the only one who made Newton’s life difficult.

Newton dropped to throw four times on Carolina’s ultimately unsuccessful first possession. Twice, he had pressure in his face when he completed a pass; twice, he tried to scramble and was dropped. And that pressure ruined Newton’s day from then on. Denver’s pressure totally unnerved the second-year QB, mainly because of how the Broncos shifted Miller around in their scheme — according to Pro Football Focus, Newton completed 73.1 percent of his passes (19 f0r 26) when he had no pressure on him and just 20 percent (2 of 10) with pressure. Add in seven sacks, and it doesn’t lead to much success for the Panthers.

7. What might have been for Philadelphia: While a team never wants to see anyone suffer an injury, let alone its starting quarterback, the timing could not have been much worse for Michael Vick’s concussion Sunday.

Not only did it come early in a key game against the Cowboys, but it stopped dead in its tracks what was a very promising start from Vick. Dallas forced punts on Vick’s final two possessions, but Philadelphia’s first drive was a thing of beauty — with Vick hitting 4 of 5 passes, including a TD toss to Riley Cooper. Vick also seemed to have found some openings in the flat against Dallas’ defense, something he may have been able to exploit as the game went along.

Nick Foles had no such success.

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