6-feet, 6-inch security blankets

  • Article by: KENT YOUNGBLOOD , Star Tribune
  • Updated: September 15, 2012 - 9:18 AM

Young quarterbacks love to lean on their tight ends, and the Vikings' Kyle Rudolph and the Colts' Coby Fleener are two easy-to- find XXL targets.

To get an idea of the relationship, ask Vikings quarterback Christian Ponder about Kyle Rudolph. It sounds like he's describing an Eagle Scout.

"He's trustworthy," Ponder said Wednesday. "He's reliable. You know what he's going to do and where he's going to be."

If Ponder had talked much longer he probably would have added thrifty, brave, clean and reverent. Much has been made of late about the changing role of the tight end in the NFL. How teams such as New England and tight ends such as Rob Gronkowski are changing the game with size and skill sets designed to thwart any defensive matchup.

But here is one thing that hasn't changed: The tight end is crucial to a young quarterback. A big target with good hands is like the NFL's version of comfort food, a security blanket. Especially for a young quarterback still learning to deal with pro defenses and ferocious pass rushes.

You should see that in stereo in the Vikings' game in Indianapolis on Sunday.

Both teams have some good, veteran offensive skill players. Ponder, in his second season, has receiver Percy Harvin and running back Adrian Peterson. In his first NFL start last week -- in a loss at Chicago -- Andrew Luck threw to Colts veteran wide receiver Reggie Wayne 18 times, connecting on nine of those.

But both Ponder and Luck have a 6-6 security blanket, too. Ponder already is developing a trust in Rudolph. Luck, meanwhile, had a head start with his tight end, rookie Coby Fleener. The two were teammates at Stanford, and they brought that relationship with them to Indianapolis.

"It's nice to have a couple years of just throwing to someone," Luck said of Fleener. "You get a feel for maybe their turn signals -- how they come in and out of breaks, their top-end speed, how they accelerate. It's been helpful."

In a season-opening victory over Jacksonville, Harvin was the Vikings' leading receiver (six catches, 84 yards), but Rudolph was right behind him with five catches for 67 yards, including a 29-yard reception in the third quarter and a key 6-yard reception against man-to-man coverage on the play before Blair Walsh's 55-yard, game-tying field goal.

Fleener? He caught six passes for 82 yards, including three receptions longer than 20 yards.

This isn't a coincidence.

"The tight end usually works the inside part of the field," said Vikings quarterbacks coach Craig Johnson. "And, often times, they are not the first progression in your look. So if I'm looking outside, there is that rush -- and people don't understand that there is nothing like it, until you get back there as a player, to have that rush coming on you.

"So it becomes, 'Where can I go with the ball?' All I know is, usually somewhere short or in the intermediate game, there is my tight end. Most of the time they're tall. So if you're unsure, I know I can find my tight end."

Both Rudolph and Fleener are more than 250 pounds. Both had productive college careers at established programs. Both were second-round draft picks, Rudolph in 2011, Fleener this year.

"We have a lot of great guys who can get out and catch the ball," Luck said. "... But it is nice to go back with the familiarity with Fleener, that big target. It's nice to throw to him in certain situations."

Ponder couldn't agree more.

"I just trust that he's [Rudolph's] going to make plays, and I trust he is big enough that if I don't throw a ball where it's supposed to be either he'll knock it down and not let it get intercepted or he'll make a play and catch a ball."

Throw in big-play ability and you have two entries in the growing class of potential game-changing NFL tight ends. Both could play big roles Sunday. The Colts have to feel they can get Fleener the ball the way the Vikings have struggled to cover tight ends.

Rudolph, meanwhile, figures to be able to get open against a Colts defense in transition to a 3-4 scheme.

"They're a threat," Colts coach Chuck Pagano said. "You get these athletic tight ends who have height, weight and strength and can run. And you're sitting there thinking, 'How do we match up?'''

We'll find out. Should either quarterback find himself under pressure, don't be surprised if a big tight end gets the ball.

"The tight end is the quarterback's best friend," Rudolph said. "Big body, usually a fairly large catch radius. We're easy to find."

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