Heading into yesterday's matchup with the Raiders, one of the 49ers keys to victory was the need to contain Zach Miller to some degree. Miller is extremely talented and was the team's leading receiver heading into the game. And given the Raiders offensive line issues, dump offs to the tight end were certainly a real possibility.
By the end of the game, the 49ers had done an excellent job against Miller, holding the tight end to a pair of receptions for 48 yards. Both of his receptions were big gainers, but for the most part he was a non-factor in the game. And arguably the most impressive athletic play of the game came on a pass to Miller. Manny Lawson was with Miller stride for stride across the middle of the field, and when Jason Campbell threw the pass, Lawson dove and made an interception that required skills of a receiver. In fact, it honestly looked like he was the tight end on the play.
The overall performance against Miller might not surprise everybody because the 49ers have done a solid job against some very good tight ends. Heading into yesterday's game, Football Outsiders had the 49ers ranked third in defense against tight ends. That ranking includes matchups with John Carlson, Jeremy Shockey, Tony Gonzalez and Brent Celek. That's quite the who's who of tight end talent in the NFL.
Of course, part of the strength thus far might be the fact that teams have been able to make plays to other skill position players. In the Seahawks game, containing Carlson didn't make a difference by the end of the game as the Seahawks dominated. Of course, in the Saints, Falcons, and Eagles games, the tight end containment likely helped keep the games as close as they were.
I'd imagine part of the reason for this strong performance against tight ends is Manny Lawson's athletic ability, which allows him to stay in coverage with some of these athletic tight ends. Additionally, the rest of the linebackers seem to be stepping up their game in covering the tight ends. Obviously if it opens up other parts of the field that's a problem. But the coverage is certainly a positive to take away thus far in the season.