METAIRIE, La. — Saints safety Roman Harper isn’t one to take himself or the world too seriously.
So, when the look on his face turned serious and the tone of his voice got a little bit firmer, it was easy to tell he was telling the truth.
All you had to do was ask him about Atlanta’s sure-bet Hall of Fame tight end Tony Gonzalez.
“He’s the best,” Harper said. “Period. There’s nothing else to say about it.”
And this is Harper talking about a Gonzalez that’s at the end of his career, a 37-year-old who has previously put a 95 percent chance on this being his last year in spite of putting up Pro Bowl-caliber numbers.
“I’ve told everybody for years I’d hate to have seen him in year three, four or five. I’ve only caught him on the back end of his career and he’s still a very tough matchup every time,” Harper added. “He catches everything. He uses his body extremely well. And Matt Ryan loves the guy.”
How much does Gonzalez like Ryan?
The tight end leads the team with 50 catches this season, gobbling up 495 yards on those catches and adding four touchdowns. In the past two seasons, Gonzalez has caught 130 passes for 1,370 yards and 11 touchdowns.
Gonzalez is in his fourth season with Atlanta after 12 standout years in Kansas City, where he finished with 10,940 yards and 76 touchdowns receiving on 916 catches. He has 12 Pro Bowl berths in his 15 seasons.
From 2000-03, linebackers coach Joe Vitt, who is moonlighting as the acting Saints head coach this season, coached in Kansas City, where he crossed paths with Gonzalez. He knows first-hand just how good the tight end is and can be.
“No. 1, he takes great care of himself,” Vitt said. “He has great practice habits, but he does all the right things off the field that enables him to have the longevity that he’s had. He eats right, he’s always in great shape, he takes great care of his body and then he’s got great practice habits.”
Is that all?
“Any quarterback that’s ever been with him has had great confidence that he knows how to get open, knows how to find the open seams, but as his age he can sit down in a zone and beat you in zone coverage,” Vitt went on. “He can beat any linebacker still in man-to-man coverage in the National Football League and most safeties versus man-to-man coverage.”
Gonzalez is a large part of an offense that’s ranked eighth in the NFL. He presents a matchup problem with most defenses, including New Orleans’ in the past.
The Saints haven’t allowed a touchdown to a tight end this season, allowing just 36 passes to be completed by players at the position. And only 19 percent of the passing yards the Saints have given up have gone to tight ends this season.
But in the past, including last season, the Saints had trouble covering dynamic tight ends. In 2011, including the playoffs, the Saints’ defense gave up eight touchdown passes to tight ends, nearly a third of the 30 touchdowns through the air they gave up.
No touchdown to a tight end was more devastating than Vernon Davis’s game-winning catch at the goal-line in front of Harper in the NFC divisional playoff loss to San Francisco.
Gonzalez can do the same thing Davis did – put his big body in position to deliver a knockout blow. And that’s if the ball comes to him.
“When you have two big, skilled wide receivers like (Julio) Jones and (Roddy) White, you like to play some cover two against them,” Vitt said. “You’re going to roll up on the outside and protect them with the safeties over the top. You can’t do that now because you expose the middle of the field to (Tony) Gonzalez.
“We’re going to have to play some cover two and we’re going to have to mix our coverages, but Gonzalez is the guy that does not let you tilt your coverage to a wideout because of the threat he is.”