Cowboy tight ends look to produce
IRVING, Texas -- With football the focus of the Dallas Cowboys' training camp for a change, there was a ton of talk about the team's two talented tight ends.
Everybody already knew what Jason Witten, the 6-foot-5, 263-pound perennial Pro Bowler, could do. Martellus Bennett, the 6-6, 265-pound physical specimen in his second season, appeared to be a budding star while he was putting together a highlight reel of acrobatic catches in the Alamodome.
The two tight ends' combination of ability and versatility give offensive coordinator Jason Garrett a ton of options for his post-T.O. offense. Bennett and Witten both can play five positions -- traditional tight end, wideout, slot, H-back and fullback -- allowing the Cowboys to line up in essentially any formation when they're on the field together. They're both good blockers and better receivers, too big for safeties to cover and too quick for linebackers to keep up with. It would simply be a matter of creating and exploiting mismatches.
Yet, after all the talk over the summer, the tight ends have been pretty quiet during the Cowboys' 2-2 start.
"I know the expectations were high," Witten said. "Some of that was media-driven, but we have a high standard for what we're doing. Hopefully, we can continue to build on it.
"We've had success in the running game in a lot of ways, some success in the passing game. But we both have a higher standard than what we've been doing in the passing game."
The tight ends have played a significant role in clearing the way for the Cowboys' rushing game, which ranks third in the league. But their production, or lack thereof, in the passing game has been puzzling.
Witten remains Tony Romo's security blanket and by far his most dependable receiver. He still catches a lot of passes, ranking third in the NFC with 23 receptions. But those catches haven't made a lot of impact. He's averaging a career-low 9.2 yards per catch, more than 2 yards below his career average, and has scored only one touchdown.
Bennett hasn't been able to get in the flow of the offense. He has only four catches for 40 yards.
"The passing game hasn't really gotten going yet for either one of us, but it's going to happen sooner or later," said Bennett, a second-round pick athletic enough to also play basketball at Texas A&M. "It's just a matter of timing and the way we attack different defenses. Once we get a chance to make plays, we will do so."
Neither tight end got a chance to make a play with the game on the line during last week's 17-10 loss to the Denver Broncos.
Bennett never got off the sideline on the final series despite the fact that No. 1 wide receiver Roy Williams was sitting on the bench with sore ribs. Witten didn't run a route on the Cowboys' three passing plays inside the Denver 10 in the final minute, staying in to help protect Romo from the blitzing Broncos.
Witten, a focus for opposing defensive coordinators, has taken advantage of the opportunities he's had. He's caught all but four of the 27 passes thrown his way this season.
Tight ends coach John Garrett, Jason's brother, said Bennett needs to do a better job of seizing the opportunities he's given. Bennett has been targeted 10 times, including twice on fade routes in the end zone on which he wasn't on the same page with Romo. John Garrett also points to a drop against the Giants as a missed opportunity.
"What he needs to do is just when he gets an opportunity, make the play," John Garrett said. "When that ball comes to him, he's got to make the play. We feel good about the things that we're doing attacking them schematically. It's just a matter of making the play and being consistent with the performance."
Bennett's presence was a major factor in the passing game during the season-opening win over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers even though he had only one catch for 13 yards. When he split out wide, Tampa Bay opted to cover him with a cornerback, allowing the Cowboys to get wide receivers on overmatched safety Sabby Piscitelli. The Cowboys took advantage of that mismatch on long touchdown passes to Williams and Patrick Crayton.
There were questions about whether Bennett, an admitted goofball who achieved Internet infamy with various blog posts, tweets and videos during the offseason, would be focused and prepared enough to handle an expanded role after a solid rookie season. That hasn't been a problem, according to his position coach, who said Bennett has been "clean" with his assignments this season.
Perhaps folks simply need to be patient with the two-tight-end package. Wade Phillips refers to it as "a work in progress." John Garrett said he believes the package will continue to grow. The Cowboys have been outstanding in the running game with Bennett and Witten on the field together, which should open up the passing game for that personnel group and the tight ends in particular.
"We have the potential to be the best tight end set in the country," Bennett said. "I still believe that we are."
Seeing is believing, something that has yet to happen after an offseason filled with talk about the Cowboys' dynamic tight end duo.
Tim MacMahon covers the Dallas Cowboys for ESPNDallas.com. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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