The Cowboys' Tight Ends Are Quietly Killing It

The Cowboys looked really good again. I'm questioning a lot of things.
The Cowboys looked really good again. I'm questioning a lot of things.

As the Cowboys have marched to their best seven game start since 2007, the accolades have been plentiful and plentifully spread around. DeMarco Murray has, deservedly, been lauded as the second coming of Tony Dorsett with each successive 100-yard performance. The defense is "improved" and "flying to the ball." Tony Romo is avoiding mistakes and converting third downs at a remarkable clip. The offensive line is the best in the league. You could hear all these things just watching the highlight shows between the end of Cowboys-Giants and the start of Broncos-49ers Sunday night.

One unit that hasn't received the plaudits, but is essential to what the Cowboys are doing on offense this year, is the team's tight ends. Jason Witten, Gavin Escobar and James Hanna were outstanding again Sunday and will continue to key the team as it moves toward the second half of the season.

Witten and Hanna's role in the running game against the Giants can't be overstated. The Cowboys were missing injured right tackle Doug Free and his replacement, Jermey Parnell, was making his third NFL start. Rather than leaning too heavily on the left side, behind soon to be All-Pro Tyron Smith, the Dallas offense was still able to gain consistent yardage running right by protecting Parnell with Witten and Hanna. Parnell is not as good as Free, but he proved a perfectly functional piece of a three-headed monster sealing the right edge. Until Free gets back, Parnell, with help, will work.

Witten's role in the passing game is much smaller this year. Some of that comes from the maturation of Dez Bryant, Terrance Williams and Escobar and the fact that Romo is just throwing the ball less often, but it shouldn't be overlooked that he is being asked to do a lot more grunt work. He may only have one touchdown catch through seven games, but he's still one of the offense's most valuable players. Hanna, as he has for the last three years, continues to be the good soldier, blocking consistently and starring on special teams despite a dearth of targets in the passing game.

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Now, in the last two weeks especially, Escobar is emerging as the guy to potential gobble up the red zone touches vacated by Witten. After catching his first touchdown of the season last week against Seattle, the 2013 second-round pick picked up two more against the Giants. The first, coming at the end of the Cowboys first scoring drive was a gorgeous team play. Facing a third-and-10 at the Giants 15 late in the first quarter, Bryant, lined up wide left ran a corner route, Witten sat down in the Giants coverage on the left hash just short of the goal line. With Romo's traditional red zone security blankets dragging attention to one side of the field, Escobar was left completely uncovered. Romo hit him as he waltzed across the back of the end zone for an easy score. Escobar also owes Bryant for his second TD. As Escobar ran a post, Giants safety Quintin Demps leaned ever so slightly in Bryant's direction allowing Romo to thread the ball to Escobar before Demps could recover. Escobar held on despite a big hit from Demps, putting the Cowboys up for good at 21-14 with 6:15 left in the third.

The diversity of skills shown by the Cowboys tight ends on Sunday shows what a complete offense the team has. Each unit -- Romo, the running backs, the wideouts, the offensive line and the tight ends -- seems perfectly suited to what Scott Linehan and company are trying to do. It's fun to watch in mid-October, and it'll be even better in mid-January.

Odds and Sods

  • Murray now stands alone for longest streak of 100-yard rushing games to start a season. If the injury gods and Scott Linehan smile on him, we may be lucky enough to see a 2,000-yard season. Emmitt Smith's Cowboys single-season rushing yardage record is 1,773.
  • Terrance Williams caught another touchdown. Ho-hum.
  • Dez Bryant's 151 receiving yard day included a late game Jordan shrug, which is just great.
  • As they have in all but the Seattle and Houston games, the Cowboys defense struggled to cover tight ends. Larry Donnell caught seven balls for 90 yards. He did lose two fourth-quarter fumbles though, so it wasn't all bad.
  • The Cowboys only turnover wasn't anyone's fault. Dez bryant fell down on a route, and Prince Amukamara picked off Romo. It led to a second-quarter Giants touchdown, but Dallas took care of the ball for the rest of the day. The biggest thing? Murray didn't fumble.
  • If the Cowboys aren't at least 9-2 heading into their Thanksgiving showdown with the Eagles, something will have gone wrong. They've got an awful Washington team in Arlington a week from Monday, then a tough game at home against the Cardinals, then the woeful Jaguars in London before getting the Giants in New Jersey after a week 11 bye. The 10-1 Cowboys against the 10-1 Eagles on Thanksgiving would be a helluva lot of fun.

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