CHARLOTTE -- Perhaps it's not enough for you to consider a trend. But when you add in the anecdotal evidence to the early statistical, it points to what might be considered a problem by some.
The Carolina Panthers have had moments in the past few years when covering opposing tight ends has seemed a bit of a challenge. There are a number of factors, and not everyone's convinced it's an issue.
Already this year, they've been victimized by teams that can use them. This week, they face one of the league's best.
New Orleans' Jeremy Shockey's expected back from his sports hernia, adding to an already potent passing game. Looking for more of a downfield element than they've had, the Saints traded for him just before camp. He had improved as a blocker in his time in New York, but it's his skills as a receiver that made the Saints want him. He's caught passes in 86 straight games in which he's played and has 387 catches for 4,379 yards and 27 touchdowns in six seasons.
So, if he's healthy Sunday, that makes him a challenge for the Panthers' pass defense, which has been quite good.
They rank third in the league, allowing just 156.0 yards per game, and they've only given up five touchdowns through the air. However, three of them have gone to tight ends, and last week's loss at Tampa showed more of the tendency. Tampa only completed 15 passes for 173 yards, but six of them for 60 (and the lone scoring pass) were to their tight ends, as quarterback Jeff Garcia consistently found soft spots underneath.
Alex Smith got the touchdown last week, and they've also been scored upon by Minnesota's Visanthe Shiancoe and San Diego's Antonio Gates.
There have been such problems in the past, though they're possibly a function of personnel. The Panthers' reliance on aging safeties was an issue for a while, along with some of linebacker Thomas Davis' early problems with the adjustment to being a full-time linebacker. Team officials insist that had nothing to do with Davis' move to the weakside of the defense this year (generally away from the tight end), saying that was more to do with his ability to make plays in space, and in hopes of creating more pressure on quarterbacks.
Middle linebacker Jon Beason laughed when asked whether the Panthers have a general problem there.
"Is that so?" he said with a laugh, effectively acknowledging that it's a headache at times.
Beason said the very nature of the tight end position can make it difficult to cover, made more so by the fact the Panthers have been willing to trade speed for size in their linebackers.
He mentioned that the issues compound in West Coast-based systems like Tampa Bay's and New Orleans', which favor accurate quarterbacks over strong-armed ones and quick, timing pass routes.
"Your rush can't get there, the blitzes can't get home, the ball's out so quick, so it does get kind of frustrating," Beason said of playing against that style.
Complicating matters further is that the Saints passing game was already doing pretty well.
Quarterback Drew Brees is the highest-rated passer in the NFC (105.0), completing 71.0 percent of his passes. Meanwhile, running back Reggie Bush leads the NFC with 41 receptions as the focal point of the league's best passing game (324.7 yards per game).
All that's without Shockey the last three games, or receiver Marquis Colston since the opener. Both were listed as limited in practice Wednesday, but Saints coach Sean Payton said he was "hopeful we'll have both of them."
While some of their other receivers have played well, Shockey adds an element the Saints lack.
"They open up," linebacker Na'il Diggs said of Shockey's impact upon returning. "He's another go-to-guy that's available. Brees spreads it around well, and I'm sure Shockey be looking for the ball, and he'll be looking to get him the ball. Bush has kind of been the guy, and I'm sure Shockey, when he's back, will open things a little more, keep some of the double-teams and the pressure off of Bush.
"You have to give Shockey that kind of respect as far as making sure guys are on him. I think it opens their playbook up a little more, but they're not going to do anything extravagant that we haven't seen."
Beason knows Shockey well from their Miami background and knows that playing well against his old friend could go a long way toward dispelling the belief that the Panthers are susceptible there.
"I know him pretty well," Beason said. "He's an intense guy, loves to play football, he wants his number called when the game's on the line. I can admire that.
"Competing against the best shows you where you're at. Shockey's going to be fun; I'm anxious to play against him."