A Dolphins pass defense that has struggled against two young, inexperienced tight ends faces a much taller order the next two weeks in Atlanta’s Tony Gonzalez and New Orleans’ Jimmy Graham.
“One’s a Hall of Famer, and the other looks like he’s on his way,” Dolphins safety Jimmy Wilson said. “We’re going to have some challenges with that.”
While Miami has done a decent job against the wide receivers from Cleveland and Indianapolis, holding the four Browns wideouts to 132 receiving yards and limiting Reggie Wayne and T.Y. Hilton to one catch after halftime, tight ends Jordan Cameron and Coby Fleener both thrived. The Browns’ Jordan had nine catches for 108 yards, the Colts’ Fleener four for 69.
Now comes Gonzalez, whose 1,249 career catches trail only Jerry Rice in NFL history, followed by Graham, the former University of Miami basketball star who has averaged 112 receiving yards in his two games this year.
“You’ve got to game plan around guys like that,” safety Reshad Jones said.
Two veteran coaches, Atlanta head man Mike Smith and Miami defensive coordinator Kevin Coyle, who between them have nearly 30 years in the NFL, said they’ve seen that position change markedly over the past decade.
“There’s more athleticism, and it creates matchup issues about who’s going to cover them,” Smith said. “Do you have a linebacker who can cover them? Do you have a safety, or do you have a big nickel that can cover them?”
Said Coyle: “These tight ends, they’re darn good athletes (and) you see them on a weekly basis. The guys are big, their number of catches are big, and we happen to be facing some really good ones — not just this week.
“We’ve got to keep mixing things up and do a better job. It’s part of the way football is today. The tight end position has become such a focal point.”
New England and coach Bill Belichick have something to do with that. In Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez, Belichick gave Tom Brady two oversized targets who created mismatches all over the field. While neither has been a factor this year — Hernandez is out of football, Gronkowski injured — Miami signed linebacker Philip Wheeler in free agency in March with an eye toward defending them.
“That’s what I was told, (and) so far I’ve done a pretty good job on the tight ends,” Wheeler said. “But we’ve still got to work harder to keep guys from getting a lot of yards. We’ve got to go back to the drawing board and work at it again.”
Looming on that drawing board is Gonzalez, the 13-time Pro Bowler who changed his mind about retirement during the offseason and, at 37, remains one of the best in the game. He has 104 career touchdown catches, including one this season.
“Tony’s got an unbelievable work ethic, but he’s also got some really good genetics,” Smith said. “He doesn’t look like he’s a 37-year-old football player. He doesn’t miss games, he stays healthy — he just has a knack for doing the things you want a tight end to do. He’s the complete package.”
“He’s a wide guy, a big guy,” Jones said of Gonzalez, who is 6-foot-5 and 247 pounds. “He does a great job positioning his body to get in front of you. (And) he’s a crafty guy; he knows how to find the holes in the defense to get open.”
Still, Wilson said, the Dolphins can’t focus too much on Gonzalez because of the Falcons’ outstanding wide receivers.
“They’ve also got guys like Roddy White and Julio Jones,” Wilson said. “Gonzalez is a big red-zone threat, that’s obvious — just look at all the touchdowns he’s caught. But they’ve also got studs outside. We’ve got to work outside in, I guess.”