In focus: Patriots key on Witten

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Patriots linebacker Rob Ninkovich didn't try to hide his defensive philosophy on defending Jason Witten: Hit him hard and hit him often.

"Whenever a receiver or tight end is getting out in his route, they're not thinking about getting hit," explained Ninkovich. "So when you get a good shot on him, you want to make the best of it. Every time I was able to get a hit, I was trying to knock him down, basically. You gotta respect a guy like that, any time you don’t touch him, he’s going to be running free through the middle of the field and that’s where [quarterback Tony] Romo is going to go. [Witten is] one of those guys that, if you get to him, it’s going to kinda mess up their offense, not being able to do what they want to want to do."

Witten caught all four passes in his direction for 48 yards, including a second-quarter touchdown. But the Patriots made it a long day for him. Ninkovich put a handful of two-handed licks on Witten early in the game, establishing the tone that nothing would come easy.

The Patriots often settled for zone coverage behind the jams, allowing linebackers Gary Guyton and Brandon Spikes to pick up Witten in the middle of the field. Here's a breakdown of Witten's performance:

Pass routes -- 37 (4 targets, 4 catches, 48 yards, TD)

Run block -- 26

Pass protection -- 6

The Patriots thrived against Witten in the first half. In fact, his only catch before the intermission was a 1-yard touchdown grab late in the second quarter. He released into passing routes on 17 plays, but didn't see any other targets.

Witten caught a 20-yard pass on Dallas' final drive of the game, but was otherwise limited to three catches for 28 yards.

"[Four] receptions? For a Pro Bowler? That's not bad," shrugged Ninkovich.

Here's a quick breakdown of Witten's touchdown grab in the second quarter:

Witten TD #1

In the goal line package, Witten drew a matchup with Devin McCourty -- the only time the two were paired the entire day -- and took advantage when the second-year corner failed to cover him sneaking across the field after a run fake.

Witten TD #2

McCourty bites on the run, temporarily flat-footing himself on the left side of the line thinking the play is coming in that direction. That allows Witten to slip out into the opposite flat as McCourty scrambles to catch up.

Witten TD #3

With too much space to make up, McCourty can't prevent the touchdown, though he did a nice job tripping up Witten and linebacker Dane Fletcher nearly turned him back at the goal line.