Posted: 10:30 a.m. Monday, July 29, 2013
By Tom Ryle
While the coverage of Dez Bryant has been just short of awestruck so far in Oxnard, I think that the Dallas Cowboys will have two receivers making a lot of noise this year. Dez was held out of the practice leading up to the Blue and White scrimmage, but Jason Witten (who is apparently very hard to get off the practice field anyway) had what was considered by Tim MacMahon of ESPN Dallas to be the play of the day.
After quarterback Tony Romo froze linebacker Sean Lee with a play-action fake, tight end Jason Witten got wide open against strong safety Will Allen for a 25-yard touchdown Sunday afternoon.
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.
I think that play was a harbinger of what we will see this year. The modified offensive scheme with the new approach to planning and calling the plays may see Witten having one of the best years of his already illustrious career.
As I said, Bryant has served notice in training camp that he is coming into the season ready to dominate. The opposing defenses have to be prepared to use double coverage against him. Otherwise, he is going to tear them a new . . . well, let's just say, they won't like the results when most NFL cornerbacks try to handle him one-on-one.
But that is going to mean other receivers are going to be single covered, and Witten has a proven track record of being able to get open against that. He lacks a great deal of speed, but he is a superb technician who knows how to work safeties and linebackers. Now the Cowboys are making the 12 personnel package a major, if not the most common, part of their attack. It is primarily designed to leave the defense unsure of whether the team is going to pass or run. When they do go to the air, Witten will also have James Hanna or Gavin Escobar to join him in the pattern, and with the two wide receivers stretching the field (and Hanna and Escobar both also very capable of going downfield), that means he is likely to have a lot of room to work.
As MacMahon mentioned in his article, getting more effective production for him, particularly in the red zone, was a priority in the offseason. Based on early returns, Bill Callahan seems to be getting that fixed.
On a somewhat speculative note, I think that having Callahan make the play calls is helping the team in that he seems a little more creative. The offense is still basically Jason Garrett's design. But I think Garrett did show a tendency in the two seasons as head coach to get a little conservative at times. I think he may have let the responsibility for the entire team restrict himself. Now that he is doing the walk-around thing, Callahan is bringing a little more daring to the job. As I said, this is just a bit of guesswork on my part, but that is to a degree based on how I interpret what is happening so far in the practices.
There are also signs that the running game is getting new life. This is crucial for Witten's game, since play-action is going to be a major factor in how things work. It also means that the offensive line will have to step up, but the last couple of practices have shown that the big guys up front are at least able to have some success.
One other aspect of the new way of developing and executing the offensive game plan also works heavily in Witten's favor. Tony Romo is going to play a major part. And we all know how Romo likes to throw the ball to Witten. You can bet that he is going to want to have several plays designed to get the ball to his security blanket in every game.
Witten's best year, in terms of yardage, was 2007, when he had 1,145 yards. With what seems to be developing this year, he may well exceed that. There are going to be a lot of targets to spread the ball around for Dallas, but the Senator is going to get his share.