BY Doug Farrar 01:49PM 12/16/2010

Looking Ahead: Great Gonzos!

Tony Gonzalez is a star of the red zone

The Atlanta Falcons use TE Tony Gonzalez in creative ways in the red zone

That Atlanta Falcons tight end Tony Gonzalez is the best player ever at his position (at least from a pass-catching perspective) is just about indisputable at this point. In his 14-year career, the Cal alum has grabbed 1,057 catches for 12,372 yards and 87 touchdowns. With 58 catches in 13 games this year, Gonzalez is just a bit below his per-season average of 75.5, but that has less to do with declining skills and more about quarterback Matt Ryan’s new affinity with receiver Roddy White than anything else.

What the Falcons seem to be doing with Gonzalez this year is to use him in creative ways in the red zone, and this was especially true when the Falcons welcomed the Green Bay Packers to the Georgia Dome for a 20-17 Week 12 win.

Gonzalez caught each of his six targets in the game, but his two red-zone targets were most interesting from a formation perspective. The first (Fig. 1) came with 12 seconds left in the first half; a four-yard touchdown that broke a 3-3 tie. In this play, the Falcons seemed to take a page from Green Bay head coach Mike McCarthy and his penchant for creative red-zone formation concepts. Of course, creative isn’t always good, especially on “… and goal-to-go,” but this example was very effective in taking attention off Matt Ryan’s primary target.

The Falcons lined up in trips right with Roddy White, Harry Douglas, and Michael Jenkins from left to right, and Gonzalez on the other side. Green Bay countered with a nickel defense, which also would have befitted the Falcons had they opted to go with a pitch right to Michael Turner. But in this case, the plan was to get coverage off the strong side and have Gonzalez use his legendary ability to get free in tight windows. At the snap, White went straight up on Charles Woodson, Douglas went toward the middle on Charlie Peprah, and Jenkins took safety Sam Shields to the sideline.

Gonzalez ran a quick up-and-out look, but broke back inside, taking a hard cut the other way. He shot between linebacker Desmond Bishop (who was dropping back from a moving blitz look) and safety Nick Collins, and headed toward the goalpost. Linebacker A.J. Hawk had his eyes on the three-receiver set, which cleared the middle for the catch. This reminded me a bit of what the Steelers have been doing with their bunch formation stuff recently. They’re more prone to use bunch to focus coverage and run different short-to-medium option routes to the single receiver on the other side.

I also liked what the Falcons did with Gonzalez on the first play of the fourth quarter. It was a third-and-goal from the Green Bay 1-yard line, and Gonzalez originally lined up in the halfback position of an offset-I, with Michael Turner as the fullback. Pre-snap, Gonzo motioned outside inline tight end Justin Peelle, which got Hawk, Bishop, and Peprah moving to that side. Bishop seemed to focus in on Turner — he may have been awaiting the fullback blast that would seem a smart play in that circumstance — but Gonzalez upped the ante at the snap by running an out route as the same time that Peelle’s straight route took Hawk out of the play.

From there, it was up to Bishop and Peprah to catch up to Gonzalez at the sideline, They couldn’t do so for the catch, but they managed to keep him out of the end zone. But Turner scored on the next play.

As we recently detailed, the Falcons’ offense is as dangerous and diverse as there is in the NFL. They’re low on pure flash, but don’t mistake them for old-school “Ground and Pound” – the way they’re using Gonzalez these days is but one example of how they seem to put each of their players in optimal positions to succeed.