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Chargers TE Gates could present problems for Vikes

By Judd Zulgad

McClatchy Newspapers

MINNEAPOLIS — Darren Sharper gave a rather honest assessment a few weeks back when asked about facing the Bears tight end duo of Desmond Clark and Greg Olsen.

"I’m never concerned about a tight end," Sharper said. "I played corner when I first came into the league. If the tight end catches the ball on me, then I need to be fired."

The Vikings’ veteran safety might want a one-game retraction on that statement Sunday lest he finds himself looking for employment after the Vikings face San Diego’s Antonio Gates.

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Gates, of course, is a tight end in position name only. The former power forward on the Kent State basketball team has used his athletic ability to become one of the NFL’s premier pass-catchers and is tied for fifth in the league with 46 receptions for 639 yards.

Former Giants quarterback Phil Simms, who has worked several Chargers games as CBS’s lead NFL analyst, calls Gates one of the top five "wide receivers" in the league. "I don’t care what you do, he’s going to catch passes," Simms said.

This isn’t good news for a Vikings pass defense that ranks last in the NFL and has had its problems with tight ends who would be considered very good but not in Gates’ class.

Dallas’ Jason Witten was the most recent tight end to have a big day against Minnesota, catching a season-high 10 passes for 86 yards in the Cowboys’ 24-14 victory on Oct. 21. Kansas City’s Tony Gonzalez, another former college basketball player turned NFL tight end, had seven catches for 96 yards against the Vikings in Week 3.

In seven games this season, a tight end has either led or tied for the team lead in receptions four times against the Vikings. Overall, the defense has surrendered 46 catches for 510 yards but no touchdowns to opposing tight ends.

Sharper admits that by its nature the Cover-2 defense the Vikings employ much of the time "is not necessarily designed to take away a tight end," but adds, "if we’re in man (coverage), he should not catch a ball because you have someone on him."

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