It’s not often that Jason Witten is a bystander in the Cowboys’ passing offense. But it happened for almost a month.
Witten barely registered in the Cowboys’ games against Washington, Philadelphia and Detroit. He had nine catches in that three-game stretch, including only two for 15 yards in the loss against the Lions.
Don’t think he didn’t notice.
“You’re aware of that,” he said.
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But don’t fool yourself into thinking he cared.
“A lot of different things go into production,” he said. “For me, it’s all about each play. One of the larger responsibilities of a tight end is to be able to keep the chains going in tough situations, not just in the pass game, but the run game as well.”
But the Cowboys noticed, and they did something about it last week. Witten caught eight passes for 102 yards and a touchdown against the Vikings, his most productive game since Denver.
“He was a big part of the game plan last week,” offensive coordinator Bill Callahan said. “We did some play-action and run-actions that opened him up. He was matched up well in terms of the coverage that we got. We tried to utilize him as much as we could. It was good to see him get back on track and have the production that he did.”
Witten remains on his typical pace, almost on the dot.
He’s on track for 80 catches and 899 yards. His career averages coming into the season were 81 catches and 895 yards.
However, Witten has only averaged four touchdowns a year, and he’s matched that total with seven games to go.
“Any time guys are contributing in their role, I think that’s a good thing,” coach Jason Garrett said. “Witt’s been a big part of this offense for a long time, and he’s been a very productive player.”
Witten influences the Cowboys’ offense even when he is not getting targets, wide receiver Cole Beasley said.
“The only time Witt won’t get a lot of balls in the game is because they’re doubling him,” he said. “He has an impact on the game either way. If you don’t double him, he is going to have eight catches, 100 yards — games like he had last week. But if you do double him, other guys have more opportunities. So he’s going to make an impact on the offense, whether he’s getting the ball or not.
“He’s not a selfish guy at all. He knows what he has to do. If he has to take on double teams while we get open, he’s more than happy to do that if we’re getting wins.”
But if Witten is back to being a major part of the passing game in terms of catches and yards, the Cowboys will be closer to matching the Saints on Sunday at a key position. The Saints’ Jimmy Graham is one of the top pass-catching tight ends in the NFL.
“You want to be the best tight end on the field any time you play,” Witten said, asked if his performance will be compared to Graham’s on Sunday night. “I take that as a challenge, as something you embrace. Obviously a tough task.”
The Saints expect a tough task covering Witten.
“He really understands leverage of defenders,” Saints coach Sean Payton said. “Heavy inside leverage, he separates out. The same way the other way around. He still gets up the seam very well.
“The consistency and availability of a player like that is only truly appreciated once they’re finished playing. He’s been amazing.”