Beware the precise TE

The Pittsburgh Steelers host the Dallas Cowboys in a game so big even sideline reporter Craig Wolfley is watching tape. Here's what he saw on Jason Witten:

The tight end is always the guy that looks out of place. Is he a wide receiver? Or does he make a living as a junior member of the local hogs fraternity? Whether he's a great receiver, or a great blocker, one thing is for sure: When you've got a tight end that can do both equally well, you've got a keeper.

Steelers fans know this very well. They've got their man Heath Miller, who is very adept at blocking and running pass routes. Strong for a tight end, Heath always seems to fall forward after contact, even when he gets busted in the chops. Well another of those elite tight ends is riding into Heinz Field on Sunday, and the Steelers secondary knows his name.

Jason Witten is a 6'5" 262 pound Dallas Cowboy tight end who can wrestle steers masquerading as linebackers and rope in the long ball on a seam route. Strong, mobile, and precise in his route running, Witten is capable of mucho damage on Sunday.

As of this writing, Witten has corralled 58 receptions for 709 yards, busting along at a 12.2 yard average with 3 touchdowns. Heaven knows what the Witten would have rung up if Romo hadn't been on injury sabbatical for four weeks (I know, one week was a bye). In that time, Witten caught 7 passes for 52 yards and no touchdowns. In the three weeks after Romo returned, Witten caught 12 passes for 160 yards and a touchdown.

I watched Witten on tape and learned he's a tough hombre. Very strong at the point of attack, Witten excels at blocking because he wants to block. When you put on the tape of, say, San Diego super tight end Antonio Gates, you'll see a guy that blocks sometimes, and doesn't get the job done others. Why? It's a matter of desire; desire to get up in the moustache of somebody and have at it, the tenacity to finish and take pride equally in your work whether or not it's hauling in a pass or run blocking.

The best players are the best not just because of their God-given talent, but their preparation. In the NFL, it's all about prepping during the week and paying attention to the little things. The little things produce big things. And this is where you see a Jason Witten excelling. From the right step on the right route to precision in hand placement on pass pro, or concentration in catching passes, Witten is precise.

For example, there was the monster day he had against Seattle on Turkey Day. Though I was suffering the head jerk from too much tryptophan, I managed to stay awake long enough to catch some of the Witten show. Gobbling up everything thrown at him, Jason caught nine passes for 115 yards and a touchdown. But it was in the one route that he ran, called a step route, that really caught my eye.

Running what looked to be a "square-in" from the right side of the line at the tight end position about 6-7 yards deep, Witten took a couple steps to the inside, passing in front of the Seattle inside linebacker dropping back in zone coverage. Immediately after clearing the linebacker, Witten broke straight upfield as if he was going long. Two or three steps into that he had knocked it hard left again passing behind the other nickel backer -- in effect running a route that resembled a stair. He then drifted 45 degrees toward the sideline at the same speed he had been running all the way across the field, splitting the safety/cornerback zone area where Romo hit him for a huge gain. This was a cookie-cutter route, precise with good timing and on the spot for a big first down.

Dallas is coming with some big weapons this Sunday to Heinz Field: T.O. and possibly Marion Barber and of course their big pass-rusher, DeMarcus Ware. Beware the Ware, and all that stuff, but I'm looking at Jason Witten. I'm sure Coach LeBeau is, too.


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