NFC South: Jason Witten

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There might not be a more compelling game on this week’s NFL schedule than the Sunday night showdown between the NFC South-leading New Orleans Saints (6-2) and the NFC East-leading Dallas Cowboys (5-4) at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.

Both teams are jockeying for position in the NFC playoff race. They both offer offensive fireworks, led by the Saints’ Drew Brees and Jimmy Graham and the Cowboys’ Tony Romo and Dez Bryant. They’ve both got something to prove: The Saints will be focused on rebounding from their ugliest performance of the season in a 26-20 loss at the New York Jets; the Cowboys are looking to beat a team with a winning record this season.

There’s even a revenge factor. Saints defensive coordinator Rob Ryan was fired by Cowboys owner Jerry Jones after last season. And he's never been shy about expressing his displeasure with that decision.

ESPN.com’s Saints reporter Mike Triplett and Cowboys reporter Todd Archer break down the matchup.

Triplett: Rob Ryan has been such a huge addition for the Saints. Players love playing for him. He’s putting them in good positions to succeed, and his versatile schemes have worked great for the most part. What wasn’t working for him in Dallas?

Archer: Injuries played a big part in his demise here. He was down six starters at the end of the season and DeMarcus Ware was playing with one arm. He had them competitive. But, honestly, Ryan played a big part in it, too. He tried to junk it up with so many different looks and schemes and packages that the players couldn’t just go play. They had to think. Maybe he felt like he had to junk it up because so many guys were hurt, but he left them unsound a lot of times. He was also way too emotional. He lacked poise when the defense needed it most. I think he was too worried about becoming a head coach. Maybe it has changed down there, or maybe Sean Payton has more control of him.

Is there any reason to think that what happened against the Jets could be the start of something for the Saints?

Triplett: The Saints have had a few nagging issues that all seemed to creep up at once in that Jets loss. Their pass protection has been inconsistent. Their run game has been nonexistent at times. The run defense has been up and down. But I think it was rare for the Saints to have all of those things come up and bite them at once at New York, and they were a little out of their element in some chilly weather against a physical team. Playing at home against the Cowboys seems like a matchup that suits them better. They’re more than happy to engage in a shootout.

What’s the biggest threat the Cowboys pose? I assume Romo and Bryant are involved?

Archer: Since they just don’t want to run the ball, after just eight carries last week (the ninth was a Romo scramble), I’ll go with Romo-to-Bryant, but the Romo-to-Jason Witten combination is pretty good. The Cowboys can throw the ball well even without a running game. They might be happy to get into a shootout as well. The last time the offense was good was a month ago, in their 51-48 shootout loss to Denver. Romo knows Brees is going to score points, so he’ll have to match it. Remember, the last time the Cowboys were at the Superdome they ended New Orleans’ run at perfection by being aggressive early. I can see them trying to do that again.

The Cowboys have allowed four 400-yard passers this season, and I’m penciling in Brees as the fifth. Calvin Johnson went for 329 receiving yards against the Cowboys a couple of weeks ago. What will Graham do?

Triplett: You could have been talking about the Saints when you said they “can throw the ball well even without a running game.” The Saints might try to establish the run a little bit since Sean Payton said that one of his biggest regrets in the Jets loss was that he was too unbalanced. But the Saints are always willing to exploit a shaky pass defense.

Some teams have been defending Graham with top cornerbacks (which worked for the Patriots but not for the Jets). But the Saints have clobbered teams whenever they leave Graham in single coverage. Meanwhile, if defenses sell out to stop Graham, Brees will happily throw to any open man. Two weeks ago, he completed passes to 10 different receivers. And it looks like Darren Sproles and Marques Colston may both be back from injuries Sunday.

Why has Dallas’ pass defense been so bad?

Archer: Mostly, it’s taken time for the players to get a grasp of Monte Kiffin’s scheme and it’s taken time for the new defensive coordinator to know how to best use his players. They have man corners in Brandon Carr, Orlando Scandrick and Morris Claiborne, but they have played a lot of zone and been exposed. There have been just too many creases. The pass rush has not helped, either. They went into the season thinking Anthony Spencer, Jay Ratliff, Jason Hatcher and Ware would be their rocks. Spencer played in one game. Ratliff didn’t play in any before getting cut. Ware has missed the last three but is set to return this week. Hatcher is having a career year with seven sacks. When they have played average quarterbacks they have held up. When they have played elite quarterbacks they have given up 400 yards. For the fantasy-football owners out there, go with Brees Sunday.

You get this every week, but play calling is a big topic here. How have things been different with Payton calling the shots again?

Triplett: You’re right to mention play calling in that question. Most people ask about Payton’s leadership, which is obviously a huge deal; he instills a lot of confidence in this team and seems to press all the right motivational buttons. But his greatest strength is his offensive brain. He’s so good at using a ton of different formations to find and exploit mismatches, usually with Graham and Sproles. The offense hasn’t quite hit its peak like it did in 2011, but it has been excellent at times.

You mentioned Ware coming back. Will he be close to 100 percent? Folks around here won’t soon forget how well he played in 2009, when the Saints didn’t expect him to come back from injury so soon. He singlehandedly spoiled their undefeated season.

Archer: I think so, but he has had a couple of nagging things this season (a stinger and strained back). Missing three weeks might have Ware as fresh as he has ever felt entering Week 10 of a season. They’ll need him to be the Ware of that night in 2009 to succeed. He looked great in training camp, overpowering Tyron Smith in practice all the time, but he hasn’t been as explosive when he has played. What he’ll do is make the other guys around him better because he’ll command so much attention.

Ware is making the move back to defensive end from outside linebacker. How has the Saints' defense transitioned from the 4-3 to Ryan’s 3-4?

Triplett: The transition has been outstanding, in large part because Ryan has adapted his 3-4 to fit the Saints’ personnel (after a ton of injuries this summer, including one to former Cowboys linebacker Victor Butler). As a result, the Saints have actually spent most of the season in nickel and dime defenses with a four-man front. Ryan likes to use three safeties at once in versatile roles, disguising what they do and sending them on occasional blitzes.

End Cameron Jordan and outside linebacker Junior Galette are having breakout seasons as edge rushers. And veteran cornerback Keenan Lewis has been a great pick-up in free agency, too. He’s a bigger, long-armed guy. I wouldn’t be surprised to see him shadow Bryant on Sunday night.

We've hit on Romo, Bryant, Witten and Ware. Any under-the-radar Cowboys who might have a big impact on this game?

Archer: I’ll go with Cole Beasley. He might get stopped by stadium security before the game because he just doesn’t look like an NFL receiver at 5 feet 8 and 180 pounds, but Romo loves the kid. He’s a real threat in the slot. He’s super quick, has a great feel for getting open underneath and knows how not to take a hit. He had six catches last week against Minnesota. The Cowboys’ third-down offense has been pretty bad, but Beasley can take some pressure off Witten and Bryant in the slot.

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NFC South Pro Bowl analysis

December, 26, 2012
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NFC Pro Bowl: East | West | North | South AFC Pro Bowl: East | West | North | South

Perfect sense: The best player in the NFC South -- and maybe even the NFL -- this season has been Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan. He already has career highs in completions (394), passing yards (4,481) and touchdowns (31) and has completed 69 percent of his passes. More importantly, Ryan has led the Falcons to a 13-2 record and appears to have his team ready to make a run in the playoffs. New Orleans guard Jahri Evans also was a logical choice. A lot of people consider him to be the best guard in the league. Some people might be surprised Tampa Bay defensive tackle Gerald McCoy made the Pro Bowl, but they shouldn’t be shocked. This just shows what McCoy can do when he stays healthy for a full season. He’s a major reason why the Bucs have the league’s top-ranked run defense.

Made it on rep: Atlanta’s Tony Gonzalez made it on his reputation and that’s not meant as a slight. That’s meant as a compliment. Gonzalez is widely considered the best tight end in history and this just shows how much fans, coaches and players respect him. Gonzalez was selected as the starter over Dallas’ Jason Witten in a season where Witten has broken the record Gonzalez set for receptions in a season by a tight end. This might be the ultimate sign of respect as Gonzalez has been selected to his 13th Pro Bowl.

Got robbed: We have two here. Let’s start with Tampa Bay’s Ronde Barber, who won the fan voting at free safety, but apparently coaches and players didn’t give him as much support. That’s unfortunate. Barber’s made a very smooth transition from cornerback to safety and has recorded four interceptions. Barber is a Pro Bowl alternate, but the fact he wasn’t selected was costly. According to a league source, Barber’s contract called for a $1 million bonus if he were voted into the Pro Bowl.

The other guy who got robbed was Atlanta wide receiver Roddy White. Teammate Julio Jones did make the roster for the first time in his career. Jones is a very good receiver, but White still is Atlanta’s go-to guy. You could even make a case that the Falcons should have had way more than three guys in the Pro Bowl. They have the NFC's best record. Linebacker Sean Weatherspoon, defensive lineman John Abraham and safety Thomas DeCoud come to mind as guys who have had Pro Bowl seasons.

Click here for the complete Pro Bowl roster.
There now is a four-way tie for the league lead in individual passes dropped and two of those players are from the NFC South.

According to ESPN Stats & Information, New Orleans tight end Jimmy Graham and Tampa Bay running back Doug Martin are tied with Dallas tight end Jason Witten and Oakland running back Darren McFadden with seven drops each.

Atlanta’s Julio Jones remains among the league leaders with five drops, but Jones hasn’t put a pass on the ground in several weeks. New Orleans’ Marques Colston and Darren Sproles are the only other NFC South players with at least four drops.

The Falcons and Saints are tied with the Cowboys for No. 4 in team drops with 20. The Buccaneers are tied for No. 25 with 12 drops and the Carolina Panthers are No. 28 with 10 drops.

Tampa Bay’s Vincent Jackson remains the only NFC South player who has been targeted at least 20 times and doesn’t have a drop.

Doug Martin, Saints lead NFL in drops

October, 31, 2012
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Tampa Bay rookie running back Doug Martin is tied for the league lead in dropped passes and the New Orleans Saints are tied for the league lead in team drops.

Martin and Dallas tight end Jason Witten each have seven drops, according to ESPN Stats & Information. Aside from Martin, drops haven’t been a problem for the Buccaneers. They’re tied for 23
But the problem has been widespread for the Saints, who are tied with the Jaguars, Packers and Patriots, with 19 drops. New Orleans tight end Jimmy Graham is tied for third in the NFL with six drops and receiver Marques Colston and Darren Sproles each have four.

The Atlanta Falcons are just behind the Saints. They’re tied for No. 5 with 18 drops and receiver Julio Jones leads the Falcons with five.

Surprisingly, we’ve got a positive stat for the 1-6 Carolina Panthers. They have nine team drops and only four teams have fewer.

Saints and Falcons have 'the drops'

October, 10, 2012
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The Atlanta Falcons and New Orleans Saints have one thing in common.

They lead the NFL in dropped passes, according to ESPN Stats & Information. The Falcons and Saints each have 15 drops.

That hasn’t been a problem for the Buccaneers and Panthers, who each have six drops.

Let’s take a little closer look at what’s going wrong for the Falcons and Saints in this department.

Atlanta’s Julio Jones is second in the league with five drops, only one behind Dallas’ Jason Witten. Jones easily has been the biggest culprit for the Falcons. Tony Gonzalez and Michael Turner each have two drops. Roddy White, who led the league with 15 drops last season, has only one. Same for Harry Douglas, Jacquizz Rodgers and Lousaka Polite.

But here’s the one that really jumped out at me about the Falcons. Joe Hawley has dropped the two passes he’s been thrown, which begs one question -- why are the Falcons throwing to Joe Hawley? I know he’s had to play a little at fullback and tight end due to some injuries. But Hawley’s an offensive lineman. I don’t care if he’s wide open, you don’t even throw the ball in his direction.

The Saints are getting their drops mostly from strength in numbers. Jimmy Graham and Marques Colston each have four drops, which ties them with a bunch of other players for third in the league. Darren Sproles and Lance Moore each have three drops. Joseph Morgan has New Orleans’ other drop.

Tony Gonzalez still going strong

January, 30, 2012
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Atlanta’s Tony Gonzalez might be the oldest tight end in the NFC South, but he also got way more playing time than anyone else at the position in 2011.

Gonzalez, who will turn 36 in February, played more snaps than all of the younger tight ends in a division that suddenly has become known for its tight ends.

Gonzalez was on the field for 952 of Atlanta’s 1,157 offensive snaps. That’s 84.5 percent and it was good enough to rank Gonzalez No. 10 among all NFL tight ends. Dallas’ Jason Witten took part in a league-high 99.2 percent of his team’s offensive snaps, but New England’s Rob Gronkowski led in total plays on the field (1,092) because the Patriots had more offensive plays than the Cowboys.

Gonzalez finished the season with 80 catches for 875 yards and seven touchdowns. Shortly before the season ended, Gonzalez assured he will play at least one more season by agreeing to a one-year contract extension worth about $7 million.

In Sunday’s Pro Bowl, Gonzalez made a game-high seven catches for 114 yards. His receiving yards were the most for any tight end in the game.

Carolina’s Greg Olsen was the division’s second-most-used tight end during the regular season. Olsen was on the field for 866 of the Panthers’ 1,046 offensive snaps (82.8 percent and No. 12 in the NFL).

Tampa Bay’s Kellen Winslow participated in 822 of the Buccaneers’ 1,021 offensive snaps. That’s 80.5 percent and ranked No. 14 in the NFL.

Of the NFC South’s four regular starting tight ends, New Orleans’ Jimmy Graham took part in the fewest number of plays. Graham led all division tight ends with 99 catches for 1,310 yards and 11 touchdowns and was selected as the NFC’s starter in the Pro Bowl.

But the Saints use such a variety of offensive personnel that Graham’s time on the field was relatively limited. He took part in 798 of 1,152 offensive plays (69.3 percent and No. 24 in the NFL).

The Panthers used a combination of Olsen and Jeremy Shockey, who ended up taking part in 51.1 percent of Carolina’s plays.

Here’s a list of other NFC South backup tight ends and the percentage of playing time they got in 2011:

NFC South links: McClain's expectations

July, 5, 2011
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Atlanta Falcons

Linebacker Sean Weatherspoon has been working out with Danario Alexander and other former Missouri teammates during the lockout. Weatherspoon said he hopes the lockout can be lifted "before the chaos begins."

Carolina Panthers

Third-rounder Terrell McClain has first-round expectations.

New Orleans Saints

Over the Fourth of July weekend, Troy Aikman, Tony Romo, Jason Witten, Bobby Carpenter and Saints coach Sean Payton played a beach football game in WaterColor, Fla.

Drew Brees came in at No. 9 on the list of the NFL's top 100 players as voted on by players.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Quarterback Josh Freeman sees some of himself in Panthers first-round pick Cam Newton.

2011 second-rounder Da'Quan Bowers denies that his right knee injury is degenerative.

Around the NFC South

May, 22, 2011
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Time for a Sunday stroll through the NFC South headlines.

Despite the lockout, the New Orleans Saints had no problem selling season tickets. They had a 98-percent renewal rate and sold out the last of their 73,000 season-tickets last week. The Saints have sold out the Superdome, which is undergoing renovations, every year since the facility reopened in 2006.

Despite the fact he missed part of his college career with a neck injury and will be moving from middle to outside linebacker, New Orleans rookie Martez Wilson said he won’t be impacted negatively by the NFL learning curve. Others who have coached him, or soon will, agree.

Tim Dahlberg wonders when NFL players will start to feel the pressure of the labor situation. He said the time for a sense of urgency is coming soon. I think it will really hit if the lockout is in place when July rolls around and players are only a few weeks away from training camp and the prospect of missed reporting bonuses for some.

Friend Brad Gagnon, perhaps Canada’s finest football writer, has a list of the 10 most famous players in the NFL. Two NFC South players made it. New Orleans’ Drew Brees came in at No. 4, one spot ahead of Carolina rookie Cam Newton. What about Atlanta’s Matt Ryan and Tampa Bay’s Josh Freeman. Well, they don’t have mass appeal or a playoff victory. Newton hasn’t even played an NFL game, but, like Tim Tebow, who came in at No. 3, he comes with intrigue and a big following.

Scott Reynolds writes about how Tampa Bay rookie tight end Luke Stocker aspires to have a career like Dallas’ Jason Witten. Both tight ends played in college at Tennessee.

Barrett Ruud tells Stephen Holder he’s confident his body of work will give him value as a free agent, whenever the lockout is lifted. As far as re-signing with the Bucs, Ruud wouldn’t say a lot. There are a lot of fans out there that seem to think the decision is up to the Bucs, which might be true to some degree. But I think Ruud is frustrated the Bucs never stepped forward with the offer of a contract extension over the past couple of years. In other words, I think Ruud wants out of Tampa Bay and knows he can get a nice contract and a starting job somewhere else.
Our Power Rankings for the tight ends are out and we’ve got two NFC South representatives.

Atlanta’s Tony Gonzalez came in at No. 6 and Tampa Bay’s Kellen Winslow is No. 7. It should be as simple as that, but it’s not. I’ve already gone out and bought a steel-reinforced floor to support the NFC South mailbag because I’m expecting heavy (and not necessarily happy) responses from fans of the San Diego Chargers and Antonio Gates.

The reason is I voted Gonzalez No. 2, one spot behind Dallas’ Jason Witten and one ahead of Gates. Every other ballot had Witten and Gates in one of the top two spots and it turns out Gates came up one point short of Witten in the final tally. You can blame that on me or the three other voters who put Witten at No. 1.

Go ahead and fill up the mailbag, but understand one thing: I wasn’t out to undercut Gates’ chances of landing at No. 1. I think he’s a great tight end, but I made a conscious decision to rank Gonzalez as highly as I did.

There aren’t any firm parameters on these Power Rankings, and I fully realize Gonzalez is nearing the end of his career and his numbers are dipping. But the reason I put him at No. 2 is because I strongly believe Gonzalez is the best tight end ever to play the game. In my eyes, that means something. I even considered putting him No. 1 on my ballot.

Even in his old age, Gonzalez still caught 70 passes last season and the Falcons went 13-3 and made the playoffs. Dallas and San Diego didn’t, so I’ve got no regrets about putting Gonzalez at No. 2.

I had Winslow at No. 6 on my ballot and that’s the highest vote he received. When we do these Power Rankings next year, I’ve got a hunch others will be giving Winslow some more attention. He’s made some noise about wanting to double his statistics next season. Well, that’s a little optimistic because it would put him at 132 catches for 1,460 yards and 10 touchdowns. But, hey, didn’t we all think Tampa Bay coach Raheem Morris was a little crazy last season when he started saying the Bucs would win 10 games?
Five things to watch in Thursday's game between the Dallas Cowboys and New Orleans Saints.

1. Reggie Bush. The New Orleans running back might make his return from a broken leg and that could change the entire complexion of an offense that has come on strong in recent weeks. The Saints can put Bush in different spots or in motion and that allows them to free up other offensive weapons. If Bush plays, the Saints probably will ease him in with spot duty and still use Chris Ivory as their main runner.

2. Take advantage of matchups. As they almost always do, the Saints' receivers have a clear edge on Dallas' secondary. Top receiver Marques Colston is likely to draw Terence Newman and that should be a competitive matchup. But the real advantage comes deeper down the line. Devery Henderson, Robert Meachem and Lance Moore all rotate in. Dallas cornerback Mike Jenkins has been having a rough season and he's likely to be targeted often. Meachem is the deep threat here with three touchdown catches of more than 30 yards. The Saints should be able to wear down this secondary.

3. Student vs. pupil. New Orleans' Sean Payton was an assistant coach with the New York Giants when Dallas interim head coach Jason Garrett was a backup quarterback there. This is only Garrett's third game as a head coach. Payton is a veteran now and his team has had plenty of experience in dealing with the logistical issues that come with a short week. That could give the Saints a big edge.

4. Roman Harper versus Jason Witten. Harper is quietly putting together a nice season. He has one interception and five forced fumbles. He also is used as a blitzer at times. But Harper could get a big challenge from Witten. Although the Dallas tight end isn't putting up his usual big numbers this season, the Cowboys may look to get him more involved in the passing game.

5. Jon Kitna versus time. The Dallas quarterback is 38 and the short week could leave him a little tired. Defensive coordinator Gregg Williams will try to exploit that. Williams brings the blitz often, but he might bring it even more than usual against Dallas.

Roddy White's perfect streak ends

November, 12, 2010
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ATLANTA – Roddy White’s perfect season ended Thursday night, moments before he made perhaps his biggest play of the year.

White entered the game with Baltimore as one of only a handful of receivers who had not dropped a pass this season. But White dropped two very catchable passes in the final three minutes, 23 seconds of the victory. He bounced back, though, and caught the game-winning touchdown with 20 seconds remaining.

That leaves Jason Witten, Eddie Royal and Lance Moore as the only players who have been targeted at least 50 times and have not dropped a pass. White’s two drops leave him at fifth in the league, one spot behind Larry Fitzgerald, who has one drop.

White also was more of a downfield threat against Baltimore than he had been earlier in the season. White had five receptions 15 yards or more downfield. He had been averaging only two such receptions per game through the first eight games.

The above statistics are from ESPN Stats & Information.

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