Tuesday, January 06, 2009

With size and speed, Dallas Clark is a matchup nightmare

December 26, 2008

By Phil Richards

Versatile tight end Dallas Clark has been referred to as the "X factor" in the Indianapolis Colts offense.

That's selling him short. He also plays the "Y," the "H" and the "Z."

Permit him to clarify.

"The Z is always towards the Y. Z and Y are on the same side," Clark offered hopefully.

If the designations are as murky as alphabet soup, so can be the task of covering him. Tennessee comes to Lucas Oil Stadium on Sunday and the Titans might find Clark in tight formation (Y), in the backfield or the slot (H) or split wide to either side (X and Z).

With defensive substitutions made difficult by the Colts' no-huddle offense, it's often likely that a linebacker might get the assignment of covering Clark without help, which begets a more lucid sequence of letters:


"He'll win one-on-ones against DBs, against cover corners and nickel," said Tennessee coach Jeff Fisher, who rates Clark's blocking as an unheralded strength. "He just creates a lot of mismatches and he just knows where to go, where to get to. And clearly he and Peyton (Manning) are on the same page. Their production and results speak for themselves."

Clark and Manning have connected on 71 passes for 789 yards and six touchdowns this season, and you know a tight end is stepping out when the records he is breaking are his own and those of larger-than-life Pro Football Hall of Fame member John Mackey. Clark's reception total is a club record for tight ends, 13 better than the standard he set a year ago. He needs 41 yards Sunday to surpass Mackey's 1966 season record of 829 yards.

Clark is on a tear. He caught 12 passes for 142 yards and a touchdown against Detroit two weeks ago, then came back with eight receptions for 105 yards and a touchdown at Jacksonville. No Colts tight end had ever caught as many as 10 passes in a game. No Colts tight end had ever managed consecutive 100-yard games.

Noble Lineage

Mackey played 10 seasons, nine with the Colts from 1963-71. Clark is in his fifth season. Appropriately enough, the last honor he was accorded at the University of Iowa after his 2002 senior season was the John Mackey Award, presented annually to college football's preeminent tight end.

Until Mike Ditka came into the league in 1961, tight ends were regarded as a sixth lineman, a third tackle.

They blocked, and that was all.

Then Ditka caught 56 passes for 1,072 yards and 12 touchdowns as a rookie and Mackey came along two years later.

The NFL had never seen such a superior athlete at the position. As a 6-2, 224-pound rookie, Mackey returned nine kickoffs for an average of 30.1 yards. In 1966, six of his nine touchdowns covered 51 yards or more. Mackey had get-deep, breakaway speed. He could catch. He could make tacklers miss. He was the prototypical modern tight end.

Clark and others used like him -- Colts coach Tony Dungy fingered Kansas City's Tony Gonzalez, San Diego's Antonio Gates and Philadelphia's L.J. Smith -- are descendants in Mackey's line.

Clark has never met Mackey. He hasn't even seen video, but he would have made Mackey proud last Thursday at Jacksonville.

With the Colts trailing 24-14 late in the third quarter, Clark set up wide right, at the "Z." He streaked the sideline past Jaguars cornerback Brian Williams, stretched to make a deft fingertip catch of Manning's strike, then held on despite safety Reggie Nelson's jarring hit. He picked up 33 yards to the Jacksonville 48.

Line up wide. Beat a corner. Get deep. Make the catch. Take the hit. It was a play that exemplified Clark's many assets. It was the play that triggered the Colts' 31-24 comeback victory.

"Boy, there aren't many tight ends in the history of the game that can just simply flat-out run by a cornerback in the NFL," NBC television analyst Cris Collinsworth observed at the time. "Dallas Clark, pretty special."

Man on the move

Clark is 6-3, and 252 pounds. He is deceptively fast, a smooth, long-striding glider with sub-4.5 second speed in the 40-yard dash. He is faster than most linebackers, bigger and stronger than safeties and cornerbacks. By moving him around, the Colts try to create mismatches, but Clark cites offensive coordinator Tom Moore's cautionary:

"It's not a mismatch until you beat him."

That's Clark's job, wherever he sets up. The options are:

Y -- The traditional tight end. Aligns in tight formation alongside the tackle to either side. Can be employed as a run blocker, pass protector or receiver.

H -- In the Colts' system, aligns in the slot, just off the line of scrimmage between the wide receiver and the offensive line, or as a second back in the backfield primarily with protection responsibilities.

Clark's skinny: "Slot is a chance to be more of a receiver and a lot of times a linebacker will come out and cover you and a lot of linebackers aren't very comfortable out in space like that. They like to be in the box and kind of know where they are."

Z -- Often called flanker. Split wide to the Y, or tight end, side and set just off the line of scrimmage.

X -- Often called split end. Split to the side opposite the tight end and set on the line of scrimmage. If Clark is at Z or X, the normal Z or X to that side, wide receiver Reggie Wayne or Marvin Harrison, moves into the slot.

Clark's skinny: "The Z and X are a lot of fun. That's where you really get to try to run routes and make plays like Reg and Marv."

Of course, there's a crucial strategic element involved in Clark lining up at Z or X.

"The season's so long I think the coaches kind of get bored," he said.

That's typical of Clark's dry humor, which more often than not is directed at himself.

Home or Honolulu

He is a self-effacing homebody who still calls Livermore, Iowa, (population 368) home. He likes hanging out with his wife, Karen, with whom he is expecting a first child in March, and their dogs, Indy, a black labrador, and Jersey, a yellow lab. Cards and board games like Scrabble are favored pastimes, but a February trip to Honolulu would be a welcome diversion.

Clark is the AFC's first alternate at tight end for the 2009 Pro Bowl. Fans, players and coaches voted him third, behind the perennial pair, Gonzalez and Gates, although he has 14 more catches and 134 more yards than the latter.

Clark would go were injury or circumstance to take out Gonzalez or Gates, but he didn't feel good about the prospect until he chatted with Wayne, who will make his third consecutive appearance.

"I kind of felt like I wouldn't belong or something, or I'd take somebody else's spot," Clark said. "But like Reggie told me, you go over there and people don't know who the alternate is. There's not a special table to eat lunch or, 'the alternates are over there.' Talking to him really helped me look at the positives."

Whether it happens this time or a future February, the dilemma will be the coaches,' not Clark's.

Where do they line him up?

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