In his professional career, which began in 2003, Cowboys tight end Jason Witten has missed just one game. He had a broken jaw and missed a Week 5 win over the Cardinals in his rookie season.
Since then he has played in 191 consecutive games (198 including playoffs) and performed as one of the best tight ends in the NFL.
Though the Dallas offense has been decimated by injuries, Witten keeps on ticking, and the Patriots know they'll have to account for him in Arlington, Texas on Sunday.
"The fact that he’s there every week and he plays good, whether it’s in the running game, the passing game, he’s a solid all-around player, one of the premier tight ends in the league," Patriots coach Bill Belichick said in a conference call on Tuesday. "He comes up big in big situations, does a great job for them in the running game and makes big and clutch plays for them in the passing game. They obviously have a lot of confidence in him. Both quarterbacks look for him in critical situations, as they have for years. The fact that he’s there all the time, has been there throughout his career, his durability has been remarkable."
Through four games this season, despite dealing with knee and ankle injuries, Witten has played in all but four offensive snaps for the Cowboys. He's racked up 25 catches for 238 yards and two touchdowns, and he continues to be a dependable blocker in the running game at 33 years old.
"He does it all," Belichick said. "They use him really to do everything. I don’t think there are any limitations. I don’t think they’re sitting there saying, ‘Well, we don’t want to run this play with Jason in there.’ He run blocks, he catches the ball over the middle, he catches the ball in the red area, third down, inside, outside, seams, man coverage, zone coverage, pass protects. I mean, whatever they need him to do, he does it and does a good job of it."
The Patriots defensive coaching staff sees the best tight end in football, Rob Gronkowski, every week in practice, yet Witten earned his fair share of plaudits and then some on Tuesday. Patriots defensive coordinator Matt Patricia called Witten "unbelievable for his longevity and what he can do in both the pass game and the run game."
Patricia added that, "[Witten's] blocking ability just seems to get better and better every year. Obviously he’s great in the passing game, but [they're] mixing him in, and they’re going to rotate the tight ends in. They use quite a few of them -- [James] Hanna or [Gavin] Escobar -- you’ll see those guys in there also and they try to gain an advantage out on the edge with those guys. They do a good job of getting the ball inside to the tight ends and the backs on the check-downs or if they see a one-on-one matchup that they like, they’ll push the ball downfield certainly and get it outside."
But it's those check-downs that the Patriots will have to watch for when checking Witten.
According to Pro Football Focus, he's made 15 of his 25 catches within 10 yards of the line of scrimmage over the middle of the field, which is exactly where quarterback Brandon Weeden has thrown 28 of his 59 passing attempts since taking over for injured starter Tony Romo.