If one question lingered more than others following the Chargers' 41-10 thrashing of the Cardinals last Sunday in Qualcomm Stadium -- besides, How did Arizona mishandle its quarterback situation so badly this year? -- it was, How does San Diego tight end Antonio Gates get so wide open so often?
Gates is a a six-time Pro Bowler and three-time All-Pro. He has caught a touchdown pass in eight consecutive games, ranks No. 2 all-time at the position with 65 scoring receptions and is one of only seven tight ends to amass at least 500 catches. It's a given that he's going to make plays.
Still, it was jarring to see him loping freely through the Cardinals secondary during much of his seven-catch, 144-yard, two-score outing. In a league in which separation is often defined as having a half-step on a defender, Gates has regularly had three or four on the competition this year. Through the first four games he's off to the best start of his career: His six touchdowns are double his previous high for the first four games of the season; his 386 yards rank second highest for his career and his 24 catches are tied for third.
"It's crazy," says quarterback Philip Rivers. "Everyone knows we're going to try to get the ball to him, but he really has been wide open on a few of them."
Many people assumed that Gates would struggle without Pro Bowl wide receiver Vincent Jackson, who is sitting out in an attempt to get a fair-market contract or a trade. Gates had said previously that no receiver created more downfield space for him than Jackson, whose absence was expected to produce more double teams against Gates.
Instead, the former Kent State basketball star has seen more one-on-one coverage than in any recent season. Much of it has to do with the Chargers' improved running game and creative scheming. After ranking 31st in rushing last year, with an average of just 88.9 yards a game, San Diego is 10th at 132.2 per game. Rookie first-round running back pick Ryan Mathews has been slowed by an ankle sprain, but third-year pro Mike Tolbert has run for 255 and three scores over the past three weeks, including 100 yards and a touchdown on Sunday.
"When they run the ball the way they do, and they have a good scheme and can protect the quarterback the way that they do, you have to try to figure out ways to attack them to try to stop them," says Cardinals coach Ken Whisenhunt. "When you do that it's going to force you to match up, and Gates is going to win his share of those matchups. You don't like that to be the case, but that's what happens."
Gates had one-on-one coverage on each of his touchdowns because the Cardinals committed an extra defender to stopping the run. At 6-foot-4, 260 pounds, Gates is a matchup nightmare because he's too strong for cornerbacks and too fast and athletic for safeties and linebackers. He beat strong safety Adrian Wilson with an out-and-up for a 33-yard touchdown in the first quarter, then used an outside feint to get underneath and past linebacker Paris Lenon for a 26-yard score down the right seam shortly before halftime.
"Before the second touchdown, in my mind I'm thinking that I'm going to throw the ball to [tight end] Randy McMichael," Rivers says. "Then I saw their coverage and I was like, What did they do? You can't cover him with one guy."
Coach Norv Turner likes to say that Gates has receiver-type skills, from his hands to his footwork. Not surprisingly he treats him as a receiver when designing plays. This season he's putting Gates in motion more frequently to keep defenses from being able to lock in on him from a stationary position. He's also using more three tight-end sets. Normally those are run formations, but the Chargers feel comfortable throwing out of them -- and even did so on Gates' second score.
"It's difficult because you can't focus all your attention on one guy or it takes your defense out of whack," Wilson says. "I'm not surprised at what they're doing with Vincent Jackson out; he just adds to their attack. The other guys can get it done because Norv does a great job of scheming defenses and getting guys open in zones and layering routes. He'll have a a guy high, intermediate and low. Your coverage has to be disciplined."
Still, getting the right matchup is only one part of the equation. The other is capitalizing. Gates is succeeding in part because he has become more of a technician. He is learning to make every route look the same, up to the point that he makes his break. He also is working to increase his understanding of the game. The more he's able to understand where and how defenses are attacking him, the easier it is to stay one step ahead of them.
"I feel mentally I've grown," he says. "You can only do so much physically. You can only run so fast and jump so high. Mentally there is an unlimited capacity on how you can grow. Mentally the game seems slower."
Perhaps, but lately it's the defenders who seem slower. About three or four steps too slow.