TAMPA — For most of his glittering 17-year pro career, Tony Gonzalez has been a marked man on fall Sundays.
Don’t expect that to change in the Georgia Dome against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
The 13-time Pro Bowl tight end might be Atlanta’s only proven threat in the passing game as the winless Bucs face the equally desperate Falcons (1-4).
Leading receiver Julio Jones is already out for the season with a foot injury and Roddy White is out with a sore hamstring, leaving Gonzalez as Matt Ryan’s most viable target Sunday. And like any leader, Gonzalez has raised his game in times of stress, catching 22 passes in the past two games after posting 11 receptions in the first three weeks.
“He’s still a guy that they’re totally leaning on getting the ball in very key situations,’’ Bucs defensive coordinator Bill Sheridan siad. “He is their guy and still perfectly capable of changing a game unless you do something to take care of him.’’
With the defending NFC South champions off to a 1-4 start before the bye week, rumors spread that Gonzalez wouldn’t mind returning to the Chiefs (6-0), who selected Gonzalez in the first round of the 1997 draft.
“I didn’t ask for a trade,’’ said Gonzalez, who changed his mind about retirement this spring to return for a fifth year with the Falcons. “There is no way I would think about jumping ship because I love playing for this team and this city. I don’t have any regrets, I’m still as happy as I can be to be a Falcon. We still have a chance.’’
With White sidelined, the Bucs figure to devote additional resources to cover Gonzalez, who has only two touchdown catches in 11 career games against Tampa Bay.
“He’s been doing it for awhile at a very high level,’’ said Bucs second-year safety Mark Barron, who knocked away a fourth-down pass intended for Gonzalez to seal Tampa Bay’s 22-17 victory at Atlanta that closed out the 2012 season. “He knows how to play the game.’’
Only Jerry Rice has more career catches than Gonzalez, who has hauled in at least one pass in 200 consecutive games. That’s the second-longest streak in NFL history to Rice’s run of 274 games.
“We’re certainly going to pay attention to Tony Gonzalez, he’s a great player,’’ Bucs coach Greg Schiano said. “But we also have to make sure we cover everybody. Matt Ryan is very good about distributing the football, reading out the play and taking what the defense gives you. We’ve got to make sure we cover all our bases.’’