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Original Issue

Open Season

San Diego's Antonio Gates has had plenty of room to work this year—and opponents are paying the price

After the Chargers thrashed the Cardinals 41--10 on Sunday, the one question that lingered more than any other—including, How did Arizona mishandle its quarterback situation so badly this year?—was, How does San Diego tight end Antonio Gates get so open so often?

Gates is a six-time Pro Bowler and three-time All-Pro. He has caught a touchdown pass in eight consecutive games, ranks second alltime at his position with 65 scoring receptions and is one of only seven tight ends to have made at least 500 catches. It's a given that he's going to make plays. Still, it was jarring to see him loping freely through the Cardinals' secondary during much of his seven-catch, 144-yard, two-TD outing. In a league in which separation is often defined as having a half step on a defender, Gates has regularly had three or four steps on the competition.

"It's crazy," says San Diego quarterback Philip Rivers. "Everyone knows we're going to try to get the ball to him, but he really has been wide open on a few of them."

Many people assumed that Gates would struggle without Pro Bowl wide receiver Vincent Jackson, who is sitting out in an attempt to get a bigger contract or a trade. Jackson's absence was supposed to allow defenses to double Gates. Instead the former Kent State hoops star has seen more one-on-one coverage than in any other recent season. Much of the credit goes to the Chargers' improved running game and coach Norv Turner's creative scheming. After ranking 31st in rushing last year (88.9 yards per game), San Diego is 10th in 2010 (132.2 through four games). Gates had one-on-one coverage on each of his touchdowns on Sunday because the Cardinals committed an extra defender to stopping the run. At 6'4", 260, Gates is a matchup nightmare: too strong for cornerbacks and too fast and athletic for safeties and linebackers.

Turner likes to say that Gates has "receiver-type skills," from his hands to his footwork. Not surprisingly the coach treats Gates as a wideout when designing plays. This season Turner is putting Gates in motion more frequently to keep defenses from locking in on him from a stationary position. Turner's also using more three-tight-end sets. Usually those are run formations, but the Chargers feel comfortable throwing out of them—and even did so on Gates's second score.

Still, getting the right matchup is only one part of the equation. The other is capitalizing. Gates is succeeding in part because he has become more of a technician. He is learning to make every route look the same until he makes his break. He also is increasing his understanding of the game. The more he knows about how defenses attack him, the easier it is to stay one step—or two or three—ahead of them.

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LOOSE END Gates eluded the Cardinals for two TDs, including this second-quarter grab, giving him six for the year.