FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- 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," Belichick told Dallas reporters on a conference call earlier this week. "He's had a tremendous career -- still going strong. He's good at the running game, good at the passing game, plays down the field, clutch guy in tight situations when you need a catch over the middle or third down, red area, [and] those kinds of things. Really, he's a complete player. I don't see any weak points. Just an outstanding guy that you've got to be aware of at all times and he definitely is a guy that impacts the running game as well.
"There's a lot of good tight ends in the league and there's good players at every position, but he's as good as any player and I'm glad we only play him once every whatever it is, three or four years. That's plenty."
After Sunday, Witten might have the same sentiment for Belichick. When the two teams last met four years ago, the Patriots put a heavy focus on limiting Witten (three catches, 47 yards) during a 2007 win in Dallas. Fast-forward to 2011 and the Patriots have done a tremendous job limiting the production of tight ends so far this season.
Here are the sobering statistics for opposing tight ends: Through five weeks, the Patriots have allowed 22 tight end targets that produced 189 yards on 15 catches. But considering the Patriots have given up 1,633 passing yards on 127 receptions, the tight-end production represents a mere 11.5 percent of yards and 11.8 percent of catches.
Even more daunting is the individual breakdown. When the Patriots have commited to taking away a tight end, they really do erase him. Gates finished with no catches and the one pass that came in his direction was intercepted. Keller caught one pass for seven yards.
The biggest tight-end games of the year came in Oakland, where the Patriots loaded up on the run game and were content to let Kevin Boss (four catches, 78 yards) get his, and in Miami, where the outside receivers were far more of a threat than Anthony Fasano (five catches, 82 yards). Even still, neither of those guys got in the end zone.
The accompanying chart offers a full break down of the Patriots versus tight ends this season.
On the surface, the Cowboys present more problems offensively than the other teams New England has faced. So can the Patriots have the same success against Witten? You wouldn't think it the way Belichick gushes.
"He's outstanding," Belichick said. "He's really a guy you have to be aware of all the time. I think the big thing that separates Witten from a lot of other tight ends is his blocking ability. He's a very good point-of-attack blocker. They run behind him so you have to deal with him in the running game. In the passing game, he's really good in all three areas. He's good on the short routes and he's a hard guy to tackle. He's good on the intermediate routes and he can get down the field.
"He had a huge play there against the Jets opening week, 70 yards or whatever it was where he beat Eric Smith. He's a guy that can pick up the tough yardage on third-and-short, over the middle and break a tackle and things like that. He's good on play-action passes and intermediate-type routes and he can also get down the field. He's really a complete player. He's a smart guy. They move him around a lot. They put him in motion, put him outside, put him in inside, put him in the slot. They have different personnel groups where they use him in conjunction with other tight ends and other receivers. It just makes it a little harder to figure out where he is and how to get him. Witten's really an outstanding player. I think he's one of the best tight ends in the league, no question about it."
The Patriots aren't exactly hiding the fact that they need to key on Witten.
"Any time you have a tight end like Keller or Gates who is going to affect the offense, you have to make sure you get them at the line of scrimmage before they get going," linebacker Rob Ninkovich said. "Witten is a great guy, a great player. You have to make sure you try to stop him."
Ninkovich and anyone lining up on the outside can probably expect to be part of the group that will try to chip away at Witten at the line of scrimmage, disrupting his routes. The Patriots have also had success bringing down a safety and commiting him to a tight end. Patrick Chung was the one who made Gates a non-factor in Week 2 -- even if it came at the expense of needing thumb surgery from so much jamming. It makes you wonder if the Patriots will employ him -- or another defender -- to get physical with the 6-foot-5, 257-pound Witten.
The Patriots do feel they have one secret weapon: Gronkowski. At 6-foot-6, 251 pounds, Gronkowski is like a younger version of Witten and challenges the Patriots' defense every day in practice.
Belichick downplayed the suggestion a bit, again choosing to focus on Witten. Yes, he loves talking up those tight ends before the game, but the only way the Patriots succeed in their game plan is if no one is talking about them after the game.
Chris Forsberg covers the Patriots for ESPNBoston.com.