OXNARD, Calif. – They made it look so easy it made you wonder why it doesn’t happen more often.
There are precious few safeties and even fewer linebackers in the league who can cover Witten. So why isn’t he much more of a red zone weapon? Witten ranks third among tight ends in NFL history with 806 catches for 8,948 yards, but he has only 44 touchdowns in his 10-year career, including only three scores last season.
That doesn’t make sense, and the Cowboys spent a lot of time at Valley Ranch this offseason searching for a solution. Not coincidentally, Witten has gotten a lot of work in the red zone during training camp.
“That’s an area of the field I want to attack, and I feel like we can do a better job of it,” Witten said. “It’s good to see that paying off for us right now. Some of those play-action fakes, Tony does such a great job drawing those ‘backers up.”
Witten was targeted 14 times in the red zone last season, catching seven passes, including all three of his scores. Unlike other elite tight ends, his targets often didn’t come in the end zone. New England was 10-of-18 for eight scores targeting Rob Gronkowski in the red zone. New Orleans was 8-of-16 for seven scores targeting Jimmy Graham inside the 20.
Witten’s touchdown Sunday came on the same play that produced a 17-yard score in last season’s win over the Pittsburgh Steelers. The same play also resulted in a 27-yard gain that set up a 1-yard touchdown run in the Cowboys’ December win over the Cincinnati Bengals.
Why not run it more often? That’s a legitimate question, but the key is for the Cowboys to run the ball more effectively, making defenses respect the play-action fakes. Witten figures to benefit greatly if the Cowboys accomplish their goal of vastly improving a rushing attack that finished second to last in the league a year ago.
“Really, it’s every football team’s best friend, but mostly the tight end,” Witten said of the running game. “The play-action is where he lives, you know? We’ve done a great job over the years on winning on man-to-man routes, but if you can get that play-action, it really becomes pretty easy. The run game is critical to us. That’s what we focused on all offseason. I think we saw the benefits of it today with the play-action.”
The hope is that we’ll see it a heck of a lot more than a few times in the regular season.