FOXBOROUGH — He played last year 95 percent sure he would retire at the end of the season. Then the 5 percent won out, because Tony Gonzalez is playing again for the Atlanta Falcons. The 13-time Pro Bowler has said that 2013 will be his final season. Definitely.
Either way, Gonzalez will be on the field Sunday night when the Patriots face the Falcons in the Georgia Dome. His snap count might be down (he is 37, after all), but the NFL’s career receptions leader for a tight end still earns a good chunk of the defensive focus.
“One of the best tight ends probably to ever play the game,” Patriots safety Steve Gregory said. “We’re going to have to be ready.”
Gonzalez has more career receptions (1,253), yards (14,361), and touchdowns (104) than any tight end in NFL history. He’s not flashy like wideout teammates Julio Jones, Roddy White, or Harry Douglas, but Gonzalez is consistently productive and dependable, especially on possession downs and inside the red zone.
“He’s still very instinctive in the passing game. He knows how to get open, he’s got good size and he’s a tough guy to match up on because of his size, his catching skills, and his athleticism,” Patriots coach Bill Belichick said. “No matter who you put on him, it’s hard to find the right guy, because he muscles the smaller guys and he outquicks and outmaneuvers the bigger guys. So basically, it’s a tough matchup on him, as it has been for his entire career.”
Gonzalez doesn’t have a 1,000-yard season with Atlanta yet (he hit that mark four times in Kansas City), but he’s averaged more catches per season with the Falcons (81.5) than he did with the Chiefs (76.3). Part of that might be because of who’s throwing him the ball.
“He’s got great catch radius,” Belichick said. “Pretty much wherever the defender is, there’s somewhere where you can put the ball that he can catch it and the defender can’t get it. [Matt] Ryan can do that, he’s very accurate. [Gonzalez] is a tough guy to cover, still does a good job.”
Room to improve
Only two teams have had more red-zone possessions on offense than the 13 by the Patriots the first three games (Green Bay and Seattle each have 14). Yet the Patriots are last in the league in red-zone touchdown percentage. They’ve found the end zone on just four of those 13 drives (30.8 percentage) and added field goals on five more, giving them nine red-zone scores. In the failed four, they went for it on fourth down late in the game against the Buccaneers, took a knee at the end of the Jets game, and committed two turnovers.
It’s that last part that Belichick wants to improve.
“Well, No. 1, not turn the ball over,” Belichick said, when asked about how his team can improve in the red zone. “That would be No. 1.”
Tom Brady was responsible for both red-zone turnovers. He fumbled on a quarterback sneak at the Bills’ 1-yard-line in the opener, and threw an interception in the end zone against Tampa Bay.
“We’ve definitely left some points on the board, just poor execution. I’ve been one of the main culprits,” Brady said.
“You have to get down there and score points. Especially when you play good teams, you can’t leave points out there. Like last week, we had a great opportunity for 7 points. Not only did we not get 7, we didn’t get any.
“You have to be able to capitalize on scoring opportunities.”
In addition to Julian Edelman’s 27 catches (tied with the Falcons’ Jones for most in the league), there is one other Patriot leading a statistical category. Cornerback Aqib Talib has three interceptions, which puts him alone at the top.
The quarterback who will try to keep the ball away from Talib is well aware of him, despite these teams not having met since 2009.
“We don’t watch a lot of film on the Patriots defense just because we don’t play them all that often, but we know Aqib really well from his time in Tampa in the division for us and having gone against him twice [a year],” said Ryan. "We know he’s a really good player. I think what I’ve seen from him with the Patriots early on is that he’s been physical. He’s playing at a really high level.
“He’s a bigger guy and has always been good at using his hands off the line of scrimmage. I think he’s playing as good now as he ever has.”
Three members of the Patriots defense — Vince Wilfork, Jerod Mayo, and Kyle Arrington — were added to Wednesday’s injury report, landing on the list for the first time this season. Wilfork has a foot injury, but was not limited in practice. Mayo (ankle) and Arrington (groin) were both limited, as were seven of their teammates, including tight end Rob Gronkowski and receiver Danny Amendola. Right tackle Sebastian Vollmer joined Matthew Slater in missing practice, the only two Patriots who didn’t participate in the full-pads workout. Vollmer left Sunday’s game with a foot injury; Slater has a wrist injury and missed Sunday’s game. Receivers White (ankle, did not practice) and Jones (knee, limited) were the biggest names on the Falcons injury report.Michael Whitmer can be reached at email@example.com.