Philadelphia Eagles News

Witten A True Test To Defense's Coverage Mettle

As they are watching film this week and seeing an explosive Dallas offense, the Eagles defense is certainly noticing the exploits of wide receiver Miles Austin, who has been sensational. And quarterback Tony Romo looks as good as he has ever looked, and the running game is quick, powerful and deep with talent.

But the one player the Eagles have to figure out what to do with, the one player who merits the most attention and the most concern is tight end Jason Witten, a familiar and agonizing player to defend.

While Austin is racking up historical numbers in the early stages of his starting NFL career, Witten remains the most dangerous player in the Dallas offense. His numbers aren't necessarily Witten-like this season -- 37 catches, 348 yards, one touchdown -- his presence has allowed others to flourish. Teams are prioritizing the weapons in the Dallas offense and are paying so much attention to Witten that opportunities are opening for Austin and Roy Williams and Sam Hurd and Patrick Crayton at the wide receiver spots. You think Austin is seeing double coverage? Not at this point, no.

Witten is the one commanding the attention inside, and that is leaving the outside shots open for Romo to hit.

The Eagles are well aware of the dangers of playing against Witten. He is big and strong and a great route runner and receiver. Witten is superb after the catch. In a division loaded with them, Witten remains at the top of the class at the tight end position, no matter how many catches Brent Celek has this season. Witten, taken in the same draft as LJ. Smith with the Eagles, has been very good for a very long time.

And, of course, the Eagles have had their troubles against tight ends through the seasons. Through seven games in 2009, tight ends have had too many big games against this defense. Even last week, in a blowout win over New York, Giants tight end Kevin Boss had 3 receptions for 80 yards and a touchdown. What gives?

Part of it could be strategy. The Eagles have been stingy this season giving up big plays to opposing wide receivers. Generally speaking, a defense has to have a soft spot somewhere, and it is far more beneficial to take away the down-the-field throws to the wide receivers rather than the intermediate throws to the tight ends. Maybe that's it.

Then again, maybe the Eagles need to find a better coverage combination against tight ends. The modern-day tight end doesn't catch the ball and fall down. He makes the catch and then has the speed to get down the field for a huge gain. Teams displace their tight end enough that he really has become a large, large wide receiver who creates favorable matchups against slower linebackers and smaller safeties.

Whatever Sean McDermott devises, you can be sure that he wants to minimize Witten's impact. Last year, the Eagles allowed Witten 14 catches and 160 yards in two games. In the first one, a Dallas win, Witten had 7 catches and 110 yards. In the second one, an Eagles blowout victory, Witten caught 7 passes for only 50 yards.

The year before, Dallas and the Eagles split and Witten had a TD grab in the Dallas win, and then big numbers -- 8 catches 113 yards -- as the Cowboys mustered only 6 points in a late-season Eagles win at Texas Stadium.

Maybe McDermott can go back to the 2006 season, when the Eagles swept Dallas -- first in the memorable game at Lincoln Financial Field when Lito Sheppard intercepted Drew Bledsoe at the end of the game and then when Jeff Garcia led the Eagles to the road win on Christmas -- and limited Witten about as well as he can be limited. In those two games, Witten caught 10 passes for 101 yards. The Eagles attacked the line of scrimmage and effectively took Witten away making plays.

Then again, the times have changed for the Dallas offense. Bledsoe was the quarterback then, intent more on throwing the ball down the field to Terrell Owens. Romo loves throwing to Witten, a superstar security blanket and then some.

Dallas has a versatile offense, and McDermott is going to have to change the look of the defense constantly. The Cowboys can grind it out on the ground, and they can hand off to Felix Jones and hope he breaks one big. They can throw to Austin and Roy Williams all over the field. And they can isolate Witten in the formation and go to him once, twice, three times in a row and demoralize a coverage scheme.

Look, we have talked about the challenges the Eagles defense has had over the years playing against quality tight ends. Last year, the defense improved tremendously from its first six games to its last 10 games, and nobody really explained what happened other than the how-can-you-argue-with-this-answer? of "We just played better."

Fair enough. It is time to step up and stamp out the tight end's collateral damage against this defense. Witten, the best of the best -- and there are more coming this year, including Antonio Gates next week, Greg Olsen the week after and Tony Gonzalez in December -- comes to town on Sunday night, looking for a breakout game in 2009. He is certainly due for a huge game.

The Eagles can't let that happen. Dallas brings a galaxy of offensive weapons to Philadelphia, led by a tight end who must be contained. Jason Witten, Pro Bowl tight end, is Priority No. 1 for the Eagles defense on Sunday night.

This article has been reproduced in a new format and may be missing content or contain faulty links. Please use the Contact Us link in our site footer to report an issue.

Related Content