Los Angeles Chargers tight end Antonio Gates is destined for the Hall of Fame after 15 incredibly productive seasons. He ranks 6th all time in receiving touchdowns with 112, 21st in receptions with 910, and 33rd in receiving yards with 11,311. And when you compare Gates to only other tight ends, he ranks first in touchdowns and third in receptions and yards, behind only Tony Gonzalez and Jason Witten.
So you’ll forgive New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick for gushing about a living legend in the league.
“I think Gates [has] a very deceptive style of route running,” Belichick said on Tuesday morning. “He’s big and he’s athletic and he’s got great hands, so he makes a lot of outstanding catches. But, he has a very deceptive and very patient style of route running, so he’s kind of subtle and then explosive at coming out of the break or to get the ball at the right time.”
Gates has been quieter this season with just 119 receiving yards and a touchdown as he’s ceded playing time to sophomore tight end Hunter Henry. Henry has been the starter this year with 301 yards and 2 touchdowns and he’s out-snapping Gates 65.2% to 54.2%.
That’s still plenty of opportunity for Gates to be a part of the offense, but he’s no longer the centerpiece he was in the past, when he racked up 382 yards and 3 touchdowns in eight previous games against the Patriots. That doesn’t mean the Patriots won’t treat him like the threat he was earlier in his career, especially because of his rapport with Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers.
“With the background that he and Rivers have together, I’m sure that Philip has a lot of confidence in Gates’ ability to make that sudden move at the last second to create some separation and then put the ball there,” Belichick said. “They’ve had a ton of production together and in different systems, different offenses, so you can see them making different throws, running different routes. But, Gates is a hard guy to defend and it’s not by the book. He’s got a very unique way of doing it but very, very effective. So, yeah, he’s still a dangerous player.”
In addition to Belichick, both coordinators Matt Patricia and Josh McDaniels spoke about Gates’ role in the Chargers offense and how his experience with Rivers plays an important role.
“I think when you play the game with another guy for a long time you start to see the game through the same set of eyes which obviously they do,” Patricia said. “There's certain situations where it might be a breakdown in a route, breakdown in coverage, breakdown in a play where those guys are just on the same page or they might see a pre-snap look that to them is advantageous to running a certain play and they can just kind of get on the same page with a lot of – basically effortlessly and turn it into a really big situation for them.”
“I'm sure that Philip and Antonio kind of know what they’re looking for from the other guy, what they expect on the route versus the coverage that they’re seeing,” McDaniels added. “That only comes through a number of years, practice, hard work, a lot of repetitions against a lot of different looks that you see. Through those things you grow and you start to develop that chemistry and trust where when it happens under pressure in the middle of a game you know what to expect from the other guy and then you’re able to do it at a high level and hopefully have it result in success.”
The Chargers did a good job grooming Gates’ heir in Hunter Henry over the course of the 2016 season and they haven’t skipped a beat with their flipped roles in 2017. Rivers can also rely on wide receivers Keenan Allen, Tyrell Williams, and Travis Benjamin, along with running back Melvin Gordon, to catch the ball and move the chains.
But there’s something special about the relationship between Rivers and Gates and the Patriots defense will be on high alert come Sunday.
Oh, and did you know that Gates played basketball in college? That’s a neat fact that I’m sure you’ve never heard of before and will not hear on the broadcast.