It has been well-documented just how incompetent the Raiders were at covering the tight end through the first month of the season. Last game they made a change in their defensive lineup that considerably improved how they performed against the tight end.
What they did was put Neiron Ball in the lineup at outside linebacker and move Malcolm Smith to middle linebacker. It was the addition of Ball and his coverage abilities combined with the removal of Curtis Lofton and his complete lack of coverage abilities that did the trick.
The result was not a single catch by a Broncos' tight end.
With those instant results to the defensive change, it led to the question as to whether the Raiders had cracked the code on what Jack Del Rio joked was a "cloaking device" on opposing tight ends. That theory will be put to the test on Sunday when the Raiders face all world tight end Antonio Gates.
"He's been doing it for a long time," Raiders defensive coordinator Ken Norton Jr said of Gates. "As you see, he's big, he can catch well, he uses his body. Just like the quarterback Rivers, he knows how to play to his strengths. They find different ways for him to play the middle. He's so big, that middle, just enough room for him and he knows how to work that middle. Then when you get to the red zone, down in the end zone, he's a guy that's a really big target for them."
The 35-year-old tight end is approaching the end of his career, but he can still take over a game. Since returning from his 4-game suspension to start the year, he has 18 catches for 187 yards and two touchdowns in two games. That's nine catches per game which is the most in the league at any position. And his 93.5 yards per game is the highest of any tight end in the league.
"He's one of the best of all time," Chargers head coach Mike McCoy said of Gates. "It's great to have great players on your football team and when he came back, he came back in great shape and he had the success he did the past two weeks because of that."
Gates left last Sunday's game with a knee injury, but he returned to the game. And though he has missed practice all week, he is expected to start Sunday, giving Philip Rivers his All Pro target and giving the Raiders defense a plenty of problems.
Neiron Ball, Malcolm Smith, and company, you're up. Shutting down Owen Daniels is one thing. If you can D up on Gates, you will have really accomplished something.
UPDATE: Antonio Gates' injury is reportedly an MCL sprain. He will be a game time decision.