TAMPA — Linebacker Geno Hayes knows the mismatches are inevitable.
An NFL game can be like a chess match, with coaches trying to find favorable matchups on passing plays. And that means Hayes and fellow Bucs linebacker Barrett Ruud have found themselves covering bigger tight ends, such as the Saints' Jeremy Shockey and the Patriots' Benjamin Watson, and faster receivers, such as the Saints' Marques Colston, with varying degrees of success.
Sunday against the Falcons, Hayes' and Ruud's jobs won't be easier. They'll see future Hall of Fame tight end Tony Gonzalez, a seemingly ageless 13-year veteran who offers a complete receiving package.
"He's a special player," Bucs linebackers coach Joe Barry said. "He has the size, the speed, the athleticism, the great hands. He has that basketball background, so he knows how to work off people and get open. I played against him earlier in his career, the middle of his career and now the end of his career, and there's really not much difference."
In previous years, with Tampa Bay playing a lot of Tampa 2 defense, linebackers covered more of a zone or an area. But with the Bucs playing more of a matchup zone this season, it has tested the coverage skills of Ruud, a fifth-year veteran, and Hayes, in his second year out of Florida State.
Though coach Raheem Morris has relieved defensive coordinator Jim Bates of his duties and the Bucs are expected to play more Tampa 2, Barry said, "It's not like we're all of a sudden going to throw the defense out that we've been running for 10 weeks."
"This year has been a lot different," Ruud said. "I really haven't had to cover guys one-on-one a lot in the past, and this year, yes, I've been matched up one-on-one with receivers. … We (linebackers) have had to be pretty versatile this year more than in the past. It's definitely a higher degree of difficulty. It's more challenging to cover somebody one-on-one"
How do the linebackers level the playing field? Though Ruud or Hayes could be matched up with a receiver or tight end, Barry said "91/2 times out of 10," linebackers will have help from the secondary behind them, either on the inside or outside. The key is leverage, which can be won within the 5 yards from the line of scrimmage in which a linebacker can put his hands on a receiver.
If the help is inside, Barry said, linebackers have to "be violent with your outside hand," funneling the receiver to the coverage (and vice versa for outside). Being physical at the line, especially with receivers, can disrupt timing.
"What we teach is that with under 5 yards, you want to beat those guys up, you want to get your hands on them, you want to win with proper leverage," Barry said. "Because if you're kicking the crap out of him, you're deterring them from doing what they can do, and that's run down the field."
It's often easier said than done, especially with tight ends such as Shockey (6 feet 5, 251 pounds) and Gonzalez (6-5, 251) having a size advantage over Hayes (6-1, 226) and Ruud (6-2, 241).
"It tests your coverage ability a lot," Hayes said. "I was out there one time with Jeremy Shockey, and I was like, 'Okay, I just got to stand up.' … I know my cover skills can basically cover any tight end in the league."
The Saints had success last week against the Bucs with tight end David Thomas (four catches, 66 yards). Though Barry said some of those plays resulted from great offensive execution, he believes his unit has to be more consistent in its coverage.
That especially includes Sunday against Gonzalez, who has 52 catches and five touchdowns in his first seasons with the Falcons, and has averaged 82.3 yards in three career games against Tampa Bay.
"Obviously, we've got to do it better, especially when you got a guy … like Tony Gonzalez," Barry said. "You've got to be exact, you've got to be detailed, because that one play when you're off — and I don't care if you're playing man-free or Tampa 2, or if you're playing match coverage — it does not matter.
"If you're off, that guy will find you."
Times staff writer Stephen Holder contributed to this report.