Green Bay Packers linebacker A.J. Hawk tries to tackle Atlanta Falcons tight end Tony Gonzalez during the second quarter of the Nov. 28 game at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta. / Corey Wilson/Press-Gazette
Green Bay Packers linebacker Desmond Bishop remembers meeting Atlanta Falcons tight end Tony Gonzalez for the first time. It was a big moment for Bishop, who played at the University of California, to meet one of the all-time Cal greats.
The two crossed paths again when the Packers played the Falcons during the regular season in the Georgia Dome in November.
Gonzalez didn’t recognize Bishop, who doesn’t want that to happen again when the teams meet Saturday in an NFC divisional playoff game at the Georgia Dome.
“It’s kind of personal,” Bishop said. “He’s like a Cal legend. So, it’s kind of cool to face him and compete against him.
“Hopefully I can make him know who I am after this game.”
Gonzalez led the Falcons in receiving during their 20-17 victory over the Packers during the regular season with six catches for 51 yards and a touchdown. The Packers will have to find a way to keep the big tight end in check.
Two plays by Gonzalez changed that game. He caught a six-yard pass on fourth-and-3 just before the two-minute warning in the second quarter to extend a Falcons drive in a 3-3 game. Five plays later, he ran a nod-route, where he faked outside and turned inside for a four-yard touchdown. Two defenders reacted to the fake on the play.
“He sold it so good … made it look like an out,” Bishop said. “Then he bent it back up and caught the touchdown.”
That’s just one part of his mastery of the game.
Gonzalez is in his 14th year and caught 70 passes for 656 yards and six touchdowns for the 13-3 Falcons. He has four 1,000-yard seasons, four 90-plus-catch efforts and nine six-plus touchdown campaigns on his resume. At 6-foot-5, 243 pounds, he has the body size and control to shield off safeties, but still has the speed to run away from linebackers.
Oh, and there’s the soft hands and years of knowledge.
“He’s still a very good route runner,” Packers defensive coordinator Dom Capers said. “You saw him catch the nod-route on us for the touchdown – goes down, head/shoulder fake. He does all that and he’s a guy in certain down and distances they’re going to go to because he’s a very good catcher and efficient that way. He’s real good at running and getting open.
“He knows how to work a defensive back in terms of leverage. If you’re one-on-one with him you better be in pretty good coverage shape or he’s going to win.”
The Packers have faced few tight ends of Gonzalez’s caliber this year.
The 49ers’ Vernon Davis is one of the elite and caught four passes for 126 yards and a touchdown in a 34-16 loss. The Cowboys’ Jason Witten was held to three receptions for 44 yards in a 45-7 rout.
There had to be an adjustment after Brandon Chillar began to be hampered by injuries and eventually went on injured reserve. Chillar filled the linebacker role in the nickel defense, specifically because of his pass coverage and ability to match up with tight ends.
Bishop and A.J. Hawk stay on the field in nickel situations.
“He’s a prime-time player, and he’s been a player that’s a mismatch on a linebacker and for quite some time was a mismatch on most of the safeties in the league,” coach Mike McCarthy said of Gonzalez. “He plays with excellent body position. He has the ability to separate. Having an opportunity to be around him in the beginning of his career, I appreciate all the hard work he’s put into his craft. He’s definitely one of their big targets.
“Tony is a potential Hall of Fame-type tight end in my opinion. He’s done it for a long time and he’s done it at a very high level.”
Gonzalez has learned to move a defender in the opposite direction of where he wants to go. He’s faster than he looks and uses subtle moves to get a linebacker or safety to turn their hips right before making his break.
“It’s almost like he knows exactly what to do to get open,” Bishop said. “(You have to) mix up coverages and never let him know if you have outside leverage, inside leverage. If you’re going to press or play off. Just keep mixing it up and just compete with him.
“That’s the only thing you can do.”
Bishop explained that a defender can’t tip off the coverage before the snap.
The cover man has to stay square, so Gonzalez can’t read which side the coverage will drift to on a singular play. Or turn early to give one look, then hurry back to the actual side of the coverage. Or fake a blitz and trail on the route. Or sag off before the snap, then rush to press.
The object is to confuse a player known for his intelligence.
Not exactly and easy task.
“Try your best, that’s all you can do,” safety Charlie Peprah said. “He’s a Hall of Fame guy. He’s a tough guy to defend against. That’s all you can really do.
“I know they like to go for him on third downs, but they know it, we know it, we’ve still go to stop it.”