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In a tight spot

Containing Gonzalez Patriots’ tough task

By Christopher L. Gasper
Globe Staff / September 23, 2009

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There are numerous ways in which the Patriots miss the presence of Rodney Harrison - his locker room leadership and his trash talk riposte among them. But perhaps nowhere is Harrison’s absence more apparent than in the Patriots’ attempts to contain top-notch tight ends.

Without him, the Patriots are in a tight spot when it comes to defending tight ends.

The subject is relevant this week with the Patriots moving on from Sunday’s disappointing loss to the Jets in the Meadowlands and hosting the Atlanta Falcons Sunday. During the offseason, Atlanta traded for arguably the greatest tight end to ever play the game, Tony Gonzalez.

The former University of California basketball player has been posting up big numbers in the NFL for 13 seasons. He is a 10-time Pro Bowler and the NFL’s all-time leader among tight ends in receptions (928), receiving yards (11,084), and touchdowns (78). Gonzalez, who has touchdown receptions in each of his first two games with the Falcons, has added another dimension to Atlanta’s already potent attack, led by quarterback Matt Ryan and running back Michael Turner.

“I think the acquisition of Gonzalez has made a huge impact on their offensive football team,’’ said Patriots coach Bill Belichick. “He makes you worry about what’s going on inside. Gonzalez has already had a real productive two games. They’ve done a good job with him scheme-wise of getting him matched up in some advantageous situations, and Ryan has been able to pick those out and get it to him.

“When teams have tried to take him away, [Ryan] has been able to come back to [wide receivers Roddy] White and [Michael] Jenkins and the running game. They’ve done a good job. Gonzalez, that was certainly a good addition.’’

For all the consternation over the Patriots’ offense, the only touchdown by either team in Sunday’s 16-9 loss to the Jets came on a 9-yard reception by New York tight end Dustin Keller. In Week 1 against Buffalo, with the Patriots intent on taking away wide receivers Terrell Owens and Lee Evans, tight ends Derek Schouman and Shawn Nelson combined for five receptions for 54 yards and a touchdown.

Defensive coordinator Dean Pees acknowledged that the Patriots had been “probably average’’ in defending the tight end so far.

Going back to 2008, after Harrison was lost for the season with a right quadriceps tear, quality tight ends have hurt the Patriots. Indianapolis’s Dallas Clark had four receptions for 63 yards. Keller had eight receptions for 87 yards. Pittsburgh’s Heath Miller had four receptions for 60 yards. Seattle’s John Carlson had eight receptions for 69 yards and a touchdown.

There is no obvious heir apparent to Harrison when it comes to containing tight ends. Candidates to fill the role would be Brandon McGowan, rookie Pat Chung, and cornerback Shawn Springs, who saw time at safety last Sunday and might be the best matchup for a guy like Gonzalez, who runs routes like a wide receiver.

“I think there are several guys,’’ said Pees. “We need to figure out which one is the best matchup physically and the best matchup for the kinds of routes this guy does.

“It’s probably going to vary from week to week. We’re going to try to use different personnel and that may not ever be the same guy twice.’’

Chung has the size, speed, toughness, and coverage ability to be a tight end neutralizer. However, he is still a work in progress. He played just two defensive snaps against the Jets, and even when safety Brandon Meriweather left the game with a right ankle injury, Chung remained on the bench.

“I think all of our rookies are in the process of learning whatever it is they’re doing - offense, defense, special teams,’’ said Belichick. “But I think all the ones that are on the roster are capable of playing and either have played or will play at some point, depending on game plan situation and some other circumstances, maybe some are in their control, maybe some not in their control. Patrick would definitely fall into that category.

“He has a lot to learn, and he’s learning it. He has done a good job for us when he has been in there on defense and in the kicking game.

“I think he has a real good future ahead of him, and I’m excited to work with him and Darius [Butler], too, in the secondary. I think that they’re headed in the right direction. There is no question about it.’’

McGowan was in Harrison’s role as the hybrid linebacker/safety against the Jets. Belichick was high on McGowan, who was a starter for the Bears in 2007, and praised his flexibility and versatility in the Rodney Role, saying he can play close to the line of scrimmage, in coverage, and is a good open-field tackler.

However, he stopped short of saying McGowan has replaced Harrison.

“Over the course of time that Rodney was here, we asked him to do quite a bit. Brandon’s been in some different roles and he’s done a good job,’’ said Belichick. “But it has been a much shorter amount of time, much fewer games, smaller window and all of that. Where all that goes and how extensive that becomes, we’ll just have to see.

“But I think he certainly has the ability and potential to have flexibility in our defensive plans.’’

Gonzalez is so good it might not matter which player is put on him. Yesterday, Pees called Gonzalez “probably one of the best tight ends to ever play the game.’’

By the end of the week, he might be calling him a matchup nightmare.

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