Tight ends have torched the Patriots in the past. This season, however, they've faced some of the best – San Diego's Antonio Gates and the Jets' Dustin Keller – and have been able to mitigate their impact.
This week, New England hosts another elite tight end in Dallas' Jason Witten.
At 6-6, 265, Witten is identical in size to New England's premier tight end, Rob Gronkowski, which could give the Patriots at least some help in preparing for a player of his caliber.
"Witten, he's a bigger guy. He's not considered just a receiver. He stays in, does his blocking assignments," observed linebacker Rob Ninkovich. "As a defense, we've got a guy like Gronkowski who we're going against all year, so, he's a guy to compare Witten to, as far as size and being able to be a receiving tight end as well as a blocking tight end."
"It definitely helps, but he's good, man," added safety Patrick Chung. "He's a different animal out there. He can catch, he can block, he can run, he's strong. He's a factor out there."
So, how has the Patriots defense been able to contain the likes of Gates and Keller thus far? Players aren't divulging too many secrets, but Ninkovich offered one possible key: disrupt them from the start.
"Anytime you have a tight end like Keller or Gates who is going to affect their offense and get open and make big plays, you have to make sure you get those guys at the line of scrimmage before they get going. Witten is a great player, so, you have to make sure you try and stop him."
"Just playing ball and doing your job. That's the most simple way I can put it," Chung stated. "And limiting the plays after catch, getting tackles … little things like that make a big difference."
But it's not just the Cowboys' tight end that can hurt a defense. It's their receivers, Dez Bryant and Miles Austin, too.
"I think this biggest thing that jumps out is [Bryant's] athletic ability," said cornerback and co-captain Devin McCourty. "He's able to play [anywhere] on the field. He can go deep. When he catches the ball short, he's able to break tackles.
"I think he's really, even if you watch on his punt returns, when he gets the ball in his hands he can go the distance. Good speed and good strength. He's a guy even when he catches the ball short we really have to rally to him and gang tackle him and try to get him on the ground as soon as possible.
"With Dez and Miles Austin, they're both bigger, stronger guys. It always helps that it's not the first time you've seen it. Going against different guys this season who have been those bigger-type of receivers, you can use some of what they did against us and how they played. I think the biggest thing is just the physical nature of the bigger receivers – most of the time they're bigger than the corners they're facing so they try to use that to their advantage."
"They definitely have threats out there and a good quarterback to get them the ball," Chung continued.
Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo has had gutsy performances this year – see his valiant comeback effort against the 49ers – and some less stellar efforts (versus the Jets, for example).
Which Romo will show up in Foxborough this Sunday?
"He's very mobile. He moves around a lot. No play is really ever dead with Romo – even when guys get to him, he's able to escape," concluded McCourty. "I think the biggest thing is once he escapes, he's not always looking to just take off and run. A lot of times he gets outside [and] he's still trying to throw the ball down the field. He has the ability, to really, no matter which side he is on -- left or right -- he can turn his shoulders and get the ball vertical. So in the secondary, we have to stay on our guys and stay ready no matter what he does back there."
Dallas has the advantage of coming off their bye week, meaning they've had more time to prepare for this game than the Patriots have.
"We have to prepare the same," Chung insisted, "just watch film, and see what's going on. Regardless of the bye, they've played games, so, we have film to watch …You can never watch too much film."
Hernandez chickens out
Aaron Hernandez continues to find new ways to entertain the media each week. Today, he purposely went to his locker, waited for a throng of reporters to swarm around him, then made a b-line for the training room, only to stop at the door and turn back around toward the media.
He proceeded to walk in circles for a few moments, pretending to go back into the training room, before finally relenting and returning to his locker to speak.
The second-year tight end did all this while munching on a large piece of General Tso's chicken, and proceeded to eat while conducting his interview.
"I feel good. Feel healthy and ready to go. Feels better and better every day," he said, referring to his sprained left knee.
The injury forced him to wear a medical brace for the Jets game, but he said he wasn't sure if he'd continue to wear it here on out (he did have the contraption on during practice today).
Taking a cue from their interview subject, reporters lobbed a few softball questions at Hernandez.
Could he play with a chicken breast in hand?
"Probably not, because I don't want to drop any more touchdown passes," Hernandez answered with a laugh, acknowledging his egregious drop of a would-be Tom Brady touchdown pass against the Jets at the end of last week's first half.
Back to the brace … is it restrictive in any way?
"It's not an excuse … You're not thinking about it when it's on," he replied. "You still play football. Yeah, it may make you a tenth of a second slower, but it's not that big of a difference, and I can't use it as an excuse," he added with a sly grin, "or else I would have on that touchdown."
New England is back to having a full slate of three tight ends on the roster, with this week's addition of Dan Gronkowski, Rob's older brother, who returns to the team after being cut just before the Buffalo game.
Gronkowski confirmed today that he was let go for injury reasons. He sustained a hamstring injury earlier this season and the team couldn't afford to keep him on the roster while he healed. However, he didn't go far, as he had an inkling he'd be back at Gillette sooner or later.
"Yeah, I just had to go get healthy and it's good to be back. Just a minor injury … You just come right back in and you're part of the team again," he told reporters today.
"I just stayed around here, did some therapy … kind of a nice break in the season. I already got a little bye week, which was nice. Yeah, I'm ready to go and focus on Dallas, getting this game plan down."
For details on today's Patriots practice, please visit the PFW blog.