New England Patriots: Jason Witten

In focus: Patriots key on Witten

October, 16, 2011
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Patriots linebacker Rob Ninkovich didn't try to hide his defensive philosophy on defending Jason Witten: Hit him hard and hit him often.

"Whenever a receiver or tight end is getting out in his route, they're not thinking about getting hit," explained Ninkovich. "So when you get a good shot on him, you want to make the best of it. Every time I was able to get a hit, I was trying to knock him down, basically. You gotta respect a guy like that, any time you don’t touch him, he’s going to be running free through the middle of the field and that’s where [quarterback Tony] Romo is going to go. [Witten is] one of those guys that, if you get to him, it’s going to kinda mess up their offense, not being able to do what they want to want to do."

Witten caught all four passes in his direction for 48 yards, including a second-quarter touchdown. But the Patriots made it a long day for him. Ninkovich put a handful of two-handed licks on Witten early in the game, establishing the tone that nothing would come easy.

The Patriots often settled for zone coverage behind the jams, allowing linebackers Gary Guyton and Brandon Spikes to pick up Witten in the middle of the field. Here's a breakdown of Witten's performance:

Pass routes -- 37 (4 targets, 4 catches, 48 yards, TD)
Run block -- 26
Pass protection -- 6

The Patriots thrived against Witten in the first half. In fact, his only catch before the intermission was a 1-yard touchdown grab late in the second quarter. He released into passing routes on 17 plays, but didn't see any other targets.

Witten caught a 20-yard pass on Dallas' final drive of the game, but was otherwise limited to three catches for 28 yards.

"[Four] receptions? For a Pro Bowler? That's not bad," shrugged Ninkovich.

Here's a quick breakdown of Witten's touchdown grab in the second quarter:

Witten TD #1

In the goal line package, Witten drew a matchup with Devin McCourty -- the only time the two were paired the entire day -- and took advantage when the second-year corner failed to cover him sneaking across the field after a run fake.

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Year of the Tight End for Pats

October, 14, 2011
[+] EnlargeJim Leonhard, Jason Witten
AP Photo/Julio Cortez "He's outstanding. He's really a guy you have to be aware of all the time," Bill Belichick said of Jason Witten, shown here creating havoc for the Jets.

The New England Patriots have had success against talented tight ends, but the Cowboys' Jason Witten could be their toughest test yet writes Chris Forsberg:

ESPN has dubbed 2011 the "Year of the Quarterback." Down here at Gillette Stadium, the New England Patriots are more likely to consider it the "Year of the Tight End."

And it has nothing to do with the production of their own second-year tandem of Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez. In what's become a familiar early-season storyline for the Patriots, the team is set to be challenged by one of the league's top tight ends Sunday when Jason Witten and the Dallas Cowboys visit Foxborough.

Even with the likes of Antonio Gates and Dustin Keller in the rearview mirror, things simply don't get any easier with Witten, a seven-time Pro Bowler and two-time first-team All-Pro. And while Patriots coach Bill Belichick doesn't discriminate when pumping the tires of an opponent in the week leading up to kickoff, the praise he's heaped upon Witten this week makes it clear that much of New England's game plan will almost certainly center on limiting the tight end's impact.

"I evaluate [Witten] as one of the all-time greats," said Belichick.

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[Your turn: Will the Patriots have the same success vs. Witten that they enjoyed against the likes of Gates and Keller? Sound off in the comments.]