Chargers-Raiders matchup No 2: Brandian Ross/Kevin Burnett vs. Antonio Gates
It won't be just one Raiders defender trying to shut down Antonio Gates. (USA TODAY IMAGES)
Editor’s note: This is the second part in a series that spotlights three Raiders-Chargers matchups to watch Sunday, 8:35 p.m., at Oakland Coliseum
[MATCHUP NO. 2: Dennis Allen vs. Mike McCoy]
Raiders strong safety Brandian Ross/weakside linebacker Kevin Burnett vs. Chargers tight end Antonio Gates
Tale of the tape:
Ross (29): 6-foot-1, 191 pounds, second season, Youngstown State
Kevin Burnett (94): 6-foot-3, 230 pounds, eighth season, Tennessee
Gates (85): 6-foot-4, 255 pounds, 11th season, Kent State
Antonio Gates is playing football like a much younger man. The Chargers tight end and future Hall-of-Famer is as spry and agile as ever, in lockstep with quarterback Philip Rivers during a sold start to the season.
He had 136 yards and a touchdown on 10 catches Sunday against Dallas, accounting for a third of Rivers’ completions. He’s the Chargers’ No. 1 receiver despite playing a different position, leaving the Raiders in a quandary about how to cover him.
They won’t use one guy.
Strong safety Brandian Ross will assume responsibility at times. Weakside linebacker Kevin Burnett will take control at others. Both players have traits helpful in slowing Gates, and they'll need them.
Burnett ranks among the league's best coverage linebackers, so he’ll see the bulk of the duty. Ross will take over on running downs, when Gates doesn’t stay in line to block.
No matter who covers Gates, the task won’t be easy.
“He’s really tough to defend this year, and he’s had a lot of explosive gains down the field,” Raiders coach Dennis Allen said. “He’s always been a challenge to cover, because not only can he get down the field on you, but he’s really good in the underneath stuff and working away from leverage. Philip does a nice job of putting the ball in the right spots and giving him a chance to make a play.”
Leverage seems to be the key. The former college basketball player excels at defender manipulation, putting someone in a place where he can’t make a play or stop a reception. In short, he'll post you up. That’s why he’s so good. That’s why he makes plays on jump balls and timing routes alike. If you give Gates an inch, he’ll take much more.
“You can’t let him do whatever he wants,” Ross said. “I know he’s bigger than me, much bigger, but I won’t back down. You have to play him physical. You have to push him and use leverage to your advantage. We all know he’s a basketball player, and you can’t let him post you up.”
Burnett knows that all too well. He played with Gates from 2009-10, and knows how tough it is to keep him down. His coverage ability should help a secondary that will be taxed by receivers.
“Kevin’s a guy that we feel good about in pass coverage and his ability to match up with people,” Allen said. “We’ll have a plan for how we use him. We’ll have a plan for how we use our safeties and we’ll be ready to go against a tight end who is difficult to deal with.”
Gates is only ineffective when hurt, and he’s feeling fine. The Chargers tight end has added motivation on Sunday, because he was taught to hate the Raiders. While personnel turnover on both sides has sapped emotion out of this matchup, Gates still considers it a rivalry game.
“Playing Oakland is more than just a game,” Gates told XX Sports Radio. “We care about who takes ownership of California. It’s like fighting for your turf. It speaks to who we are as a team. The guys need to understand this is equivalent to your homecoming game. … It’s a lot of fun to go into the Black Hole and shut 60,000 people up. There’s no better feeling than that.”