Tight ends enjoying huge role in passing game

Forced to play six of their last seven games without the injured Marvin Harrison, the Indianapolis Colts have done a couple of things to compensate for the prolonged absence of their eight-time Pro Bowl wide receiver.

First, quarterback Peyton Manning has relied more than usual on his other wide receiver, Reggie Wayne, a Pro Bowler in his own right. And second, the Colts' offense has thrown more to tight ends, especially the marvelously versatile Dallas Clark.

"You do what you have to do," said Clark, who already has established career highs for receptions (42) and touchdowns (seven) through 11 games. "And until we get some of our [injured] guys back, it seems like this is the formula that has worked out the best for us."

Throwing to tight ends, in fact, has worked extremely well for a lot of offenses this season. The position has enjoyed a re-emergence of sorts over the past five or six years as offensive coordinators have sought to establish more presence in the middle of the field.

As a group, though, tight ends are setting even higher standards in 2007, at least as pass-catchers.

Through the Thursday night Green Bay-Dallas game, tight ends have accumulated 1,456 catches for 15,561 yards. Extrapolated over a full, 16-game schedule, the numbers project to 2,106 receptions and 22,506 yards. The projected statistics represent an increase of slightly more than 8 percent over the current corresponding records for NFL tight ends. The league records, according to a recent NFL news release, are 1,945 catches in 2005 and 20,761 yards in 1984.

Four tight ends -- Cleveland's Kellen Winslow (1,271 yards), San Diego's Antonio Gates (1,231), Dallas' Jason Witten (1,089) and Kansas City's Tony Gonzalez (1,073) -- are on pace for 1,000-yard seasons. There are six tight ends on pace for 75 or more receptions, and 13 for 50-plus catches. Six tight ends either lead their teams in receptions or are tied for the team lead.

It is a position where established veterans such as Gates, Gonzalez, the Giants' Jeremy Shockey and Baltimore's Todd Heap (when healthy) continue to shine. But tight end also is a position that, over the past few years, has witnessed the development of terrific young performers such as Clark, Witten, Winslow (now fully rehabilitated from injuries that all but wiped out his first two years), Washington's Chris Cooley, Houston's Owen Daniels and San Francisco's Vernon Davis.

A second-year player and fourth-round choice out of Wisconsin in the 2006 draft, Daniels is a good example of the way in which tight ends have exploded into increased prominence. A year ago, he posted 34 catches for 352 yards. In the first 11 games of this season, Daniels had 51 receptions for 624 yards. At his current pace, he will more than double his output from the 2006 season.

One factor in Daniels' surge is the better play the Texans have seen at quarterback. But it also is attributable to the fact that Houston, like just about every franchise in the league, is making more use of the tight end as a receiver.

Because of the preponderance of Cover 2-style schemes in the league, offensive coordinators have been forced in recent years to attack the "umbrella" or "shell" packages they see so often from opposition defenses. And even though the Cover 2 hasn't been used nearly as much as people think the past two seasons, the tight end as a receiver between the hashes has continued to be an inviting option.

"The looks we were getting from [secondaries] kind of dictated a change," said New Orleans quarterback Drew Brees, who has found a solid, pass-catching tight end this season in Eric Johnson. "And once we rediscovered the tight end around the league, the light bulb sort of went on in a lot of different places at once. It was like, 'Whoa, we're onto something here.' And you know what a copycat league it is. So once it works for one team, then everyone wants in on the act. Plus, in general, the tight ends are simply better now and a lot more flexible than they used to be."

Such versatility has all but eliminated the fullback, especially from the passing game. But it also has allowed the guys who draw up X's and O's to be a little more creative. Fewer tight ends play in-line now. More teams have incorporated multiple-tight end formations. And excellent receivers such as Clark are more often flexed away from the line of scrimmage. In fact, it is Clark's ability to align in the slot, essentially as a third wide receiver in the Indianapolis offense, that has most allowed the Colts to survive Harrison's absence.

Clark in the slot precipitates natural matchup problems for defenses. He is too quick for most linebackers. And if a defense responds by playing a nickel look, removing a linebacker and replacing him with a safety or cornerback to help in coverage, Clark often moves to a classic, in-line position, and the Colts run the ball against a soft front.

"They definitely make it a chess match," Atlanta middle linebacker Keith Brooking said of the Colts' use of Clark in different formations. "And [Clark] is the main piece."

Other offenses don't use their tight ends in the slot as extensively as Indianapolis does -- the Cowboys, with Witten, might come the closest -- but the quickness and athleticism of guys such as Winslow and Gates allow them to function almost as oversized wide receivers.

And this season, they are putting up super-sized numbers.

Senior writer Len Pasquarelli covers the NFL for ESPN.com.