When the New York Giants host the Dallas Cowboys on Sunday Night Football, they’ll be facing a familiar foe. While many of the faces on the field change, there’s been one there longer than any other player who will suit up on Sunday night -- Jason Witten.
Hearing that name can send instant shivers to the spine of Giants fans because Witten seemingly always has a big game and is uncoverable in big spots whenever these two teams meet up. If there’s a single player who kills the Giants more than Witten, it sure doesn’t feel like it.
The Witten-Giants dynamic feels as big as it is because of how many times Witten and the Cowboys have faced the Giants. There are also two facts when put together create the perfect storm for this matchup to be so impactful. The first, is Witten kills just about everyone. In his career, Witten has played every other team in the league at least three times. Among those teams, there are only three that have held Witten under a 40 receiving yards per game average -- the Miami Dolphins (four career games), New England Patriots (three), and Tampa Bay Buccaneers (seven).
Of course, he’s played the three teams in the NFC the most — 28 games against Washington, 27 against the Giants, and 26 against Philadelphia. By yards and receptions, Witten has actually been the most productive against the Eagles with 5.7 receptions per game and 61.8 yards per game. The Giants are not too far behind, allowing 5.3 receptions and 54.2 yards per game. Washington has done the best job, relatively, of controlling Witten with 4.5 receptions and 50.3 yards per game.
Where Witten really gets the Giants is scoring touchdowns. The tight end has scored 13 career touchdowns against Big Blue, well above the eight allowed by both Philadelphia and Washington.
Now that brings us to point No. 2: the Giants are terrible, in general, at covering all tight ends. This year the Giants are 27th in Defensive DVOA against tight ends and have allowed the third-most receiving yards in the league to opposing tight ends. This comes while the Giants are sixth in DVOA against both No. 1 and No. 2 receivers and ninth defending any other wide receivers on the field.
So now when Witten, who performs well against just about everyone, faces the Giants, who struggle covering any tight end, the advantage tends to go to the Dallas veteran. And Witten has been able to take advantage of the Giants quite frequently. Since 2003, the Giants have allowed 56 opposing tight ends to gain at least 60 yards in a game during the regular season -- 12 of those belong to Witten. So 21.4 percent of those games belong to Witten, while only eight percent of the Giants’ games played in a given regular season come against the Cowboys.
Even in his age-34 season, Witten has been a big part of the Cowboys’ passing attack. He’s been one of the safety nets for Dal Prescott in his rookie season and Witten’s 73 targets are second on the team behind Cole Beasley. He hasn’t lit up opposing defenses like he used to, but he’s still been a decent middle of the field target throughout 2016. His nine-catch, 66-yard day against the Giants in Week 1 was his second-best game of the season so far.
What continues to make Witten dangerous this season is the amount of talent surrounding him on this Cowboys team. It’s something defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo talked about this week in regards to defending the tight end:
“He makes a lot of plays, he is still every bit as threatening as a pass receiver and I think he is a better blocker now. I think he has taken that on as a challenge, to be a good blocker, he does that really well. He will have to be a focus, but it is the same thing that we have faced in the other games, pick your poison. Who do you want to take away? Last week we, in some regard, did what we wanted to do. 84 [Antonio Brown] had that touchdown, but we didn’t want him to wreck the game and throw the ball down field and they didn’t do that. They had some other places that they could go and they did. This team presents the same problem. They have a running back, they have a wide out that can wreck the game, they have a tight end that is crafty – they have a slot receiver who makes a lot of people miss when he gets open, so we will put something together, let the guys play and hopefully it is well enough to win the football game.”
These other weapons the Cowboys have help open up the middle of the field for Witten and while the tight end is no longer a physical specimen -- there’s a significant difference in the athleticism of Witten and, say, last week’s dominant tight end Ladarius Green -- he’s smart enough to know where the coverage will and won’t be.
He showed this early in the matchup during Week 1 this season. For his second catch of the game, Witten lined up on the left side of the line. After the ball is snapped, Witten saw both linebackers covering the middle of the field drop back into a zone. Witten rounded off his route into a void in the coverage and was able to get an easy gain of eight on first down.
This was the case on the game-winning touchdown he scored with 13 seconds left in Week 1 last season, too. Witten was aligned at the inside slot in a 3x1 set, and while he gets pressed at the line, he’s allowed to run free after getting through. The linebackers and safeties sat back in zone and again Witten rounded off his route right in front of the defenders which allowed an easy score.
But while Witten isn’t a super-dynamic move tight end, the Giants have yet to find a player who can cover him one-on-one. During Week 1, the Giants gave Witten a bunch of looks, using both linebackers and defensive backs. For as much as Landon Collins has improved this season, he’s still not the type of player to go to man coverage against opposing tight ends. Here’s Collins allowing Witten’s first catch of the game in Week 1:
Throughout the season the Giants have thrown just about everyone at the tight end, but there’s yet to be someone consistently up to the task. In 2013, the Giants were actually sixth in DVOA against opposing tight ends, but that didn’t really apply against Witten, who had two touchdowns in each of the two games.
Between the mixture of Witten’s physical and mental skills, he’s consistently a matchup nightmare for any team. The Giants consistently match up poorly against opposing tight ends and the volume at which these two teams meet sets up for this type of dominant performance. Even while Witten’s physical skills start to fade, he’ll continue to give the Giants problems for as long as he stays on the field.