Gates is the target of Rivers' affection

October, 3, 2010
10/03/10
11:00
PM ET
Philip RiversStephen Dunn/Getty ImagesPhilip Rivers and the Chargers bounced back from a Week 3 loss with a resounding win over Arizona.
SAN DIEGO -- Antonio Gates equates his professional athletic path to the simple numbers game of romantic logic.

Even after a wildly successful NFL career, Gates -- a college basketball player-- admits hoops was his first love and desired game. Still, Gates said he did the prudent thing. He looks at it this way: Basketball was the girl he pursued, while football was the girl who pursued him.

“I went with the girl who wanted me,” Gates said Sunday after he once again showed why he is the premier tight end in the NFL in San Diego’s easy 41-10 win over Arizona.

It has been a perfect marriage.

Once again, Gates showed that he is the No. 1 target of San Diego quarterback Philip Rivers -- and he showed why the Chargers’ offense is playing at a high level even without holdout Pro Bowl receiver Vincent Jackson.

“We would be better with Vincent,” Rivers said. "And no disrespect to him, but we are moving along with the guys we have … Obviously, it all starts with Antonio.”

Gates celebrated a key milestone --500 receptions -- in an unlikely NFL career Sunday in a big way. Gates, who signed with the Chargers in 2003 as an undrafted player, didn’t play college football. He was a standout on Kent State’s basketball team.

Gates had seven catches for 144 yards as San Diego jumped all over Arizona and improved to 2-2 after they were once again questioned for their slow starts under coach Norv Turner. The Chargers lost two very sloppy road games at Kansas City and at Seattle.

However, Gates set the tone for a big win Sunday. He caught all seven passes Rivers targeted him on. Rivers was 15-of-20 passing for 241 yards and two touchdowns. Both of his touchdown passes were to Gates. One touchdown was for 33 yards and the other was for 26. Gates was wide open on both plays.

On the 13 Rivers passes not intended for Gates, Rivers targeted six receivers. No other receiver was targeted more than three times.

Rivers said the beauty of leading the San Diego offense, which compiled 239 yards through the air and another 180 yards on the ground, is all the options he has to play with. San Diego entered the week with the No. 1 ranked offense in the NFL, and Sunday’s dominance should merely reaffirm that status.

“Every week, it could be another guy,” Rivers said.”Legedu [Naanee] had one catch this week. Next week, he may be the main guy.”

[+] EnlargeAntonio Gates
AP Photo/Denis PoroyAntonio Gates is clearly Philip Rivers' favorite target.
Still, Gates -- who has 24 catches for 386 yards and six touchdowns in four games -- is the one constant. He is the first option Rivers looks for. That was the case last year when Gates had a career year with 79 catches, 1,157 yards and eight touchdowns. Gates, who signed a new five-year contract to make him the highest-paid tight end in the NFL, is playing even better this year as he takes on the added responsibility of playing without Jackson, who had 68 catches and averaged 17.2 yards per catch in 2009.

Jackson is expected to hold out for the entire season if he isn’t traded on Oct.18 or 19. But Gates' performance Sunday showed the Chargers are in fine shape regardless of how the Jackson saga ends.

“We are an explosive offense,” Gates said. “We’re doing a lot of good things.”

Other key aspects to San Diego’s win Sunday:

Don’t forget the defense: Even San Diego’s offense is not stealing the show it has been terrific. San Diego’s defense has allowed four touchdowns in four games. Arizona’s only points Sunday came via a fumble recovery and a 53-yard yard field goal with three minutes to play.

San Diego pressured Arizona quarterback Derek Anderson and Max Hall (the rookie replaced Anderson late in the second quarter) all day. The Chargers had nine sacks. Linebacker Shaun Phillips had four sacks and returned an interception 31 yards for a touchdown. Can you say “AFC defensive player of the week?”

“We’re playing at a high level,” San Diego linebacker Kevin Burnett said. “”We’re making a lot of plays out there.”

San Diego on the run: The Chargers’ run offense is well again. It was ranked 31st in the NFL last season. While LaDainian Tomlinson is enjoying success in New York, the Chargers are doing fine without him. San Diego had 180 yards on 38 attempts.

Human bowling ball Mike Tolbert had 100 yards on 16 carries; it was his first 100-yard game of the season. Tolbert carried the load again as the Chargers eased No. 12 overall pick Ryan Mathews back into the offense after he missed six quarters with an ankle injury.

Mathews had 55 yards on nine carries and added a catch for 13 yards. He scored on a 15-yard run late in the third quarter.

“It’s really nice that we have this balance,” said Rivers, who lauded his offensive line for strong pass protection and run blocking. “You can do a lot of things well when you have both parts of the offense working.”

Special teams improve: A big reason why San Diego was 1-2 going into Sundays’ game was poor coverage on special teams. It had allowed three return scores in two losses.

San Diego made some personnel tweaks on the coverage units during the practice week as it tried to fix the issues. It worked well.

“I thought we made great strides there,” San Diego coach Norv Turner said. “We’ll end up being one of the better coverage teams in the league by the time we continue through.”

Bill Williamson | email

ESPN San Francisco 49ers reporter

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