The Chargers All-Pro tight end was held without a reception for the first time since 2008 during New England's 35-21 victory, and he was only targeted once by quarterback Philip Rivers. It's one thing to contain a player of Gates' caliber, but the Patriots completely eliminated him from San Diego's offense.
It wasn't easy, but it was the plan. The Patriots used so many different coverages on Gates that his head must have been spinning on a play-by-play basis.
At various points throughout the game, the Patriots had safety Patrick Chung, linebacker Rob Ninkovich, cornerback Devin McCourty, safety Sergio Brown, safety James Ihedigbo and defensive end Mark Anderson line up over Gates. They almost always jammed him at the line, and that was priority No. 1.
"He's such a great receiver, so I knew that going into the game I had to try to slow him down, jam him up, get my hands on him to help the guys in the secondary," Ninkovich said. "Any time I saw him in my area, I was trying to hit him."
Ninkovich and Chung took on the most responsibility with Gates. There were some plays when both players lined up over Gates, and Ninkovich would rush the quarterback while Chung would play man-to-man. There were a couple occasions when Ninkovich or Anderson chipped Gates before turning toward the backfield, leaving the tight end to Chung.
There was one sequence when Ihedigbo jammed Gates before letting Chung take him from deeper in the zone, and then the two switched roles on the next play. McCourty lined up on Gates early then dropped into a zone, and Gates crossed over the middle of the field, where he was taken by the linebackers.
When Chung took Gates at the line, he often had safety Josh Barrett protecting him down the field. Sometimes, the pair doubled him in a zone, and other times, they followed him in man coverage.
In the third quarter, the Patriots allowed Gates to release off the line, which must have thrown off Rivers, who threw an interception to Brown in man coverage.
There was so much going on that it was difficult for the Chargers to get a read on the coverage. There were points when the defensive assignment looked predictable, but New England used enough variations to create a seed of doubt.
It was the plan all along.
"Just hit him as much as we can," Brown said. "Don't let him get started because as he builds, he runs better routes as he gets up the field more. We tried to get him close to the line of scrimmage and stop him before he got going."
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