Eagle Eye: Defending Jason Witten
After a dozen years in the NFL, Cowboys tight end Jason Witten has established himself as one of the premier tight ends in the history of the league.
Witten ranks second in receptions (951) and receiving yards (10,562) by tight ends, trailing only the legendary Tony Gonzalez in each category.
This Sunday, with Dez Bryant out for the foreseeable future, Witten will likely be featured even more prominently in Dallas’s passing attack.
He caught eight passes for 60 yards and a pair of touchdowns in the Cowboys’ Week 1 win over the Giants.
Covering Witten and attempting to limit his touches will likely fall to the Eagles’ linebackers and safeties. Two veterans at those positions, DeMeco Ryans and Malcolm Jenkins, have faced Witten plenty in the past. The last time Ryans faced Witten, in the final week of the 2013 season, the veteran tight end went off for 12 catches and 135 yards. Jenkins has faced Witten four times in his career. In November of 2010, Witten caught 10 passes for 99 yards against Jenkins, who was then in his second year as a member of the Saints.
Suffice to say, the two know what they’re going up against in Witten this Sunday.
“He’s a really smart, savvy vet who just continually gets it done, year after year,” Ryans said after practice Thursday.
But how does he get it done, specifically?
Using Leverage to his Advantage
One thing Jenkins and Ryans both emphasized was Witten’s ability run effective routes.
“He’s not extremely fast, but he’s a very smart player,” Ryans said. “He does a good job of using the leverage that linebackers or safeties give. If there’s inside leverage, he knows how to run the outside routes. He’s really just one of the smartest players I’ve ever played against.”
This first play came against Jenkins’ Saints, in that 2010 game when he caught 99 yards’ worth of passes. Here, Witten is lined up on the left side of the line of scrimmage, with safety Roman Harper covering him.
When Witten comes off the line, Harper plays him to the outside in order to take away any semblance of an out route or corner route. Witten runs his route in a straight line until the break, and takes advantage of Harper using the outside leverage by cutting sharply into the in-route.
Harper is left trying to recover, while Witten is a step ahead of him and looking for the ball as a result of his smart, precise route running.
Here’s another example of the route-running Jenkins and Ryans were talking about. This play came against the Eagles, in the late December game in 2013.
Witten lines up as a receiver on the left side of the field, with Ryans lined up as the nearest linebacker to him. When Witten is about to break in his route, Ryans is playing him to the inside, so Witten takes the outside leverage and finds space for a big reception.
“He’s savvy enough to work away from your leverage, work towards space, and he just gives his quarterback a clean window to throw in all the time,” Jenkins said. “He understands leverage, he understands his body type, and he gives his quarterback a lot of space to fit the ball into.”
Finding Soft Spots in the Zone
When defending Witten, Jenkins said, you have to be careful playing zone defense because of his ability to poke holes in zones.
“If you play zone, he understands how to work his way into a soft spot in the zone and get open,” Jenkins said. “He has an answer for everything you want to do.
“It’s not always down the field, either. When you need those third-and-fives, third-and-sixes, he’s going to Witten.”
This play, from the same game against New Orleans, is a perfect example of what Jenkins was talking about. On a 3rd-and-4, Witten lines up on the right side of the line and runs a button hook to the center of the field.
When he recognizes that the Saints’ linebackers are playing zone, Witten stops his route and looks for Romo’s pass, which is already on its way. He sits in the hole in the zone, just past the first-down marker, and picks it up without a problem.
So, how do you stop him?
Jenkins was a little more coy this week than last, when he explained how the Eagles would try to contain Julio Jones.
“Well, I won’t tell you the how and why,” Jenkins said with a laugh, when asked how the defense would try to stifle Witten.
“I can tell you the plan is to stop [Witten] from catching the ball,” Jenkins continued.
He said defensive coordinator Billy Davis will draw up a few different ways to force Romo into looking elsewhere.
“We’ll see if we can do that with one person, with a linebacker, with a secondary guy, or if we have to double him,” Jenkins said. “Can we play zone? We’re still figuring that all out, the game plan.”
The clear plan, for now, is to force someone other than Witten to beat them in the passing game.