Vikings wary of Cowboys TE Witten in Sunday’s playoff battleEDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. (AP) — Of all the challenges the Dallas Cowboys present, perhaps the one the Vikings must be most wary of is tight end Jason Witten. Witten led Dallas with 94 receptions, surpassed 1,000 yards for the second time in his career and was picked for his sixth Pro Bowl. His connection with quarterback Tony Romo, a close friend of his, is clear.
EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. (AP) — Of all the challenges the Dallas Cowboys present, perhaps the one the Vikings must be most wary of is tight end Jason Witten.
Witten led Dallas with 94 receptions, surpassed 1,000 yards for the second time in his career and was picked for his sixth Pro Bowl. His connection with quarterback Tony Romo, a close friend of his, is clear.
“He’s his No. 1 outlet, or he’s the check-down guy in a lot of routes too if deeper routes aren’t open,” Vikings linebacker Chad Greenway said. “He’s always going to be a focus for every team who plays them. He’s going to be focus for us as well, but they have threats everywhere. You can’t just focus on him.”
The Vikings have been vulnerable over the past few years to opposing tight ends. Blame soft coverage by their linebackers and safeties, their style of defense, talented players on the other team, or a combination of all three.
The Vikings allowed 86 completions for 929 yards and nine touchdowns this season to tight ends, an average of five catches and 58 yards per game. San Francisco’s Vernon Davis and Green Bay’s Jermichael Finley did the most damage, with Davis totaling seven receptions, 96 yards and two touchdowns on Sept. 27 and Finley going for six catches, 128 yards and a score the following the week.
This was less of an issue down the stretch, with only 27 receptions, 269 yards and two touchdowns allowed to that position over the last seven games.
“You just have to decide what you’re going to take away and approach it that way,” defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier said.
It’s no coincidence that as passing yardage has increased around the league, the tight end position has become more prominent.
Dallas was one of eight teams this season whose leader in receptions was a tight end. Another, Atlanta, came close with wide receiver Roddy White edging Tony Gonzalez 85 to 83. Dallas Clark of Indianapolis had a whopping 100 catches, 1,106 yards and 10 touchdowns, tied with wide receiver Reggie Wayne for the team lead.
The presence — or lack — of reliable and effective wide receivers and running backs to catch passes has an impact on how often a tight end is targeted. Plus, the scheme used by the defense for a particular play can make it easier or more difficult for a certain receiver to get open.
The “Tampa Two” system the Vikings have run for the last four years is designed to stop the deep pass, fueled ideally by a strong rush up front and predicated on sound tackling. That leaves space in the middle of the field, underneath the coverage.
“Whenever you’re a zone team, tight ends find a way to get open,” Vikings safety Madieu Williams said. “That’s the key: finding a zone, finding a dead spot. You’ve just got to minimize the yardage after the catch.”
Williams and fellow safety Tyrell Johnson have not stood out this season, together totaling only one interception, and rookie Jamarca Sanford has been taking some of Johnson’s playing time. Rookie Jasper Brinkley’s replacement of injured middle linebacker E.J. Henderson is another potential weakness, though Brinkley has been on the sideline in most passing situations in favor of a third cornerback.
The Cowboys have a quick passing attack, the kind that has given the Vikings trouble this season.
“Tackling is obviously a big deal,” linebacker Ben Leber said. “You get those short screens and swing passes and things like that, you have to be able to get guys up there and tackle so you don’t have any bleeding yardage.”
Keeping Dallas from starting strong will be important, too. Witten knows it.
“That’s huge for us, obviously with the points that it gives you, but just the mentality that it creates for us offensively and defensively,” Witten said. “It’s just a mindset that you put on the opponent when you’re able to do that.”
AP Prediction: COWBOYS, 24-20