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Cardinals will have their hands full with Falcons’ TE Tony Gonzalez

The Arizona Cardinals’ biggest struggle on defense this season has been covering tight ends. While a lot of their trouble can be attributed to whom they’ve faced — Jimmy Graham and Vernon Davis, for example — it doesn’t get any easier this week as they play Tony Gonzalez of the Atlanta Falcons.

The 17-year vet is one of the most accomplished tight ends in NFL history, totaling 106 touchdowns and almost 15,000 yards receiving over his career. Gonzalez been productive this season as well, with 369 yards and three touchdowns, and the Cardinals realize he won’t be easy to defend.

“He’s as good as it gets,” head coach Bruce Arians said. “He’s got all the tricks to the trade. He’s still athletic, but he knows how to get himself open, especially in the end zone.”

Cardinals inside linebacker Daryl Washington echoed his coach’s sentiment, putting Gonzalez in the upper echelon of the game’s tight ends.

“Tony G. is definitely one of those tight ends that’s up there, maybe top three in the history of the game, so we’ll definitely have our hands full with him,” Washington said.

Washington was forced to watch from the sidelines for the team’s first four games due to a suspension for violating the league’s drug policy. His absence may have contributed to the team’s struggles covering tight ends and he said it was frustrating not being able to help them.

While his ability to cover tight ends one-on-one gives the Cardinals a big boost, Washington said the key to shutting down players like Gonzalez is actually creating pressure on the passer.

“Those front four have to get after the quarterback,” Washington said. “When you can do that, it allows you to play a little bit tighter, more aggressive in the back end. When you have a quarterback that can sit back there all day, any quarterback, an average quarterback can sit back there and make an easy read.”

With their top two wide receivers dealing with injuries (Julio Jones is out for the year and Roddy White is dealing with hamstring and ankle injuries), the Falcons will likely be turning to Gonzalez early and often in this Sunday’s game.