Dallas Cowboys tight end Jason Witten has been making plays for a long time. In fact, many people have complained about that, saying he’s slowed down or that his yards per catch numbers are dropping. But every training camp, he keeps winning the starting job and taking all the reps from the younger players. So why can’t the shiny new draft picks with all their athleticism beat out this tired old man?
Well, frankly, because he isn’t. Witten’s athleticism is actually quite strong and it was on display against the Cleveland Browns on Sunday. When you combine it with his savvy route running, nice play-calling, and many other threats from this offense, he’s as unstoppable as ever. We’ll look at three examples of this.
Witten is in the blue circle, inline right, Terrence Williams and Dez Bryant (blue arrows) are running vertical routes and each of them will draw a double team (orange arrows). The corner over Dez and linebacker to the Browns’ right will drop into short zones bracketing Cole Beasley (orange squares). That leaves one LB, Jamie Collins, to cover Jason Witten (orange circle).
As the routes develop, Dak Prescott (blue arrow) is scanning the field and can see the deep coverage that is already moving to keep Dez and T-Will out of the play. In the orange circle you can see the corner get a chuck on Dez before letting him go on. Worth considering that the Browns have tasked three guys to keeping Dez from getting deep here - one to bump him and two to run with him. Meanwhile, the nickel LB is clearly dropping into his middle zone, so Prescott correctly reads that Witten is one-on-one with Collins.
The development of the coverage is easy to see here as Witten’s and Williams’ routes mesh briefly. You can already see that the CB is going with Williams. So can Dak. It’s not as clear here, but Witten (blue circle) already has Collins beat because Collins is playing a shorter route than Witten is running. It’s unclear whether this is Collins’ choice or his assignment, but either way it’s a touchdown for Dallas.
As you can see here, there’s simply no one in the vicinity, pitch and catch to Witten (blue circle) as the CB (orange circle) takes himself out of the play.
The next play is a 3rd and 6, the play before Ezekiel Elliott’s first TD run. If Dallas does not convert here, they kick a FG. Witten is lined up tight left (blue circle). The Browns are blitzing a CB and a LB (orange arrows) and dropping their 1-tech into coverage (orange circle).
Prescott and Witten both quickly diagnose the blitz. One safety is still backpedalling to his single-high position. The other is running with Witten in outside leverage (blue circle). The DT (orange circle), not surprisingly, doesn’t take a very deep drop. This leaves a nice little hole in the middle of the field (blue square), Witten makes for it and Dak is throwing towards it before the blitzing CB has even gotten to the RB in pass protection.
A few things to see as Dak (blue arrow) releases the football. Witten’s inside move leaves the safety in the dust (blue line). That’s massive separation for a TE to gain on a DB. The deep safety has hit his mark and is driving forward on the ball, but is way too late to be any help. Whether you want to call it poor design or poor execution, or just greatness by Witten; there are three DBs on Witten’s side of the field at the snap and none of them are within five yards of him at the throw. I find that remarkable. Oh... I almost forgot, you can also see Alfred Morris (orange square) pick up the blitzing CB keeping his QB upright.
You may not have noticed, but Witten is actually showing a lot of athleticism in these plays. You see the change of direction skills against the safety, but go back to the first play and look at Witten and Williams as they come off the line exactly even.
This next play I’ll showcase that Witten still has some burst. He’s in the blue circle again, lined up tight right with Geoff Swaim doubling behind him.
It looks like a stretch run to the defense, but it’s the bootleg. This is approximately one second (I counted "one thousand one") after the snap. Look at how far downfield Witten is already. With the single-high safety just starting to backpedal and both linebackers playing the run, Witten has enormous space here. I’m honestly not sure the LBs even saw him go by. If you watch in real time, it’s impressive how fast Witten gets upfield.
Here is "one thousand two" from the snap. Witten has driven 14 yards upfield and turned out. I’d bet it translates into a nice ten-yard split. The safety is just beginning to suspect something is up. The linebackers are swearing loudly. Witten has almost ten yards on them and they have no hope at all.
The Browns get lucky as Dak plays it conservative and lays the ball in nice, easy, and a little short of where he should. Witten has to slow, turn back, and reach for the ball. Hitting Witten in stride here could’ve resulted in a TD. The safety gets over and takes Witten out at the knees, but give Witten three more yards here with a leading ball placement and I think he scores a 76-yard TD. As it was, he got nearly half of that with a 35-yard gain here.
Again, watch that play in real time and tell the Browns how much Witten has "slowed" with age. Also remember that Witten is 6’6", 263 lbs... basically the same weight and 3" taller than Demarcus Lawrence or 1" shorter and 10 lbs lighter than David Irving. You just don’t see a lot of DEs who can leave a safety five yards behind with a cut, or run by linebackers like they are standing still.
I wouldn’t count on him slowing down any time soon.