IRVING, Texas– The Cowboys are sure to spend a good portion of their week figuring out the best way to cover New England's Rob Gronkowski.
The Cowboys have a pretty special tight end, too. Patriots head coach Bill Belichick knows it.
"I have so much respect for Witten, what he's done, how consistent he's been," Belichick told the Dallas/Fort Worth media via conference call. "He's been so durable and dependable, does a great job in the running game, pass protection, clutch receiver. I mean, he is really a tremendous player and as I said, I have the utmost respect for what he's done this year and what he's done in his career."
For proof, just look at the Patriots' defensive attention toward Witten over the years.
In three career games against the Patriots (2003, 2007 and 2011), Witten has totaled eight catches for 101 yards and one touchdown. In the teams' most recent meeting – a Patriots 20-16 victory at Foxboro – he caught four passes for 48 yards and a touchdown but was constantly fighting Patriots defensive end Rob Ninkovich for a clean release off the line of scrimmage.
"I'm sure he's going to have a plan," Witten said of Belichick, "and they do as good a job as any defense of each week they scheme up the opponent and how they're going to try to attack with their defense. When you study their defense, they've been ahead in a lot of games because their offense scored a lot of points, but their defense played really good."
With wide receiver Dez Bryant still recovering from foot surgery, wide receiver Brice Butler (hamstring) missing practice time this week and running back Lance Dunbar expected to miss the rest of the season with a torn ACL, the Cowboys are running out of downfield options.
Witten is a natural security blanket working the middle of the field, and defenses have focused on him. Last Sunday he caught four passes for 57 yards with the Saints sending him a lot of bracket coverage.
"But that's just part of it," Witten said. "I've got to find ways to get open and when opportunities present for other guys, they're going to make plays. Coach (Scott) Linehan has really stressed that to our offense – when your number's called, you've got to be able to execute."