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13 Dec 2007
by Michael David Smith
Something quite surprising happened in the first half of Sunday's Lions-Cowboys game: The Cowboys ran 28 offensive plays, and not one of them was a pass to Terrell Owens.
In the second half Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo threw four passes to Owens, who caught three of them, but for only 21 yards -- and one of those passes would have been called back if the Lions hadn't declined an offensive pass interference penalty on Owens.
Considering that Owens entered the game averaging six catches for 104 yards a game, and was
first in the league in DPAR and second in the league in DVOA, that's quite an accomplishment by the Lions' defense, even if it did come in a 28-27 loss. In his press conference after the game, Lions coach Rod Marinelli was asked how his defense held Owens in check.
"The Cover-2, as always," Marinelli answered. "You give up other stuff -- like to the tight end."
The tight end, of course, was Jason Witten, who caught 15 of the 18 passes Romo threw to him, for 138 yards. And since Witten had such a great game and the Cowboys beat the Lions, it might seem like the Lions' defensive game plan of shutting down Owens didn't work -- it only transferred some of the yards that ordinarily would have gone to Owens over to Witten instead. But the fact remains that the Lions managed to stay competitive in a game against a much better team, and they managed to neutralize the Cowboys' best offensive player. How did they do it?
To find out, I watched the tape of Cowboys-Lions, with a close look at what the Lions did to rein in Owens. It wasn't quite as simple as "the Cover-2, as always."
Or at least, it wasn't the same as the Lions' usual variation of the Cover-2 (a phrase that has been overused and misused so often that it's hardly worth using at all anymore). For most of this season, the Lions have been lousy against No. 1 receivers. And for most of this season, Owens has been dominant. What changed Sunday?
For starters, the Lions were adding a lot of man-under to their Cover-2, and the cornerbacks were staying with Owens even when he ran routes that would ordinarily cause them to pass Owens off to the safeties. The Lions' cornerbacks also wisely kept Owens in front of them, and they didn't try to jam him at the line of scrimmage. Earlier this season, when we examined the Washington Redskins' game plan and how not to cover Owens, we noted that jamming Owens at the line of scrimmage is unwise because he's just too strong to get slowed down with a shove from a cornerback. The Lions' cornerbacks understood that.
More significantly, the Lions kept their safeties deep downfield to prevent Owens from getting behind them, and they dropped the linebackers into coverage in the spots near the hashmarks where Owens usually loves to run his routes. Owens is a smart receiver who can find the holes in the defense and adjust his routes accordingly, but the Lions spent all day Sunday making sure there weren't any holes in the defense where Owens was running.
That's what happened on all those plays when Owens wasn't open and Romo therefore didn't throw to him, but what about the plays when Romo did throw to Owens? The first pass thrown Owens' way came on the Cowboys' second play of the third quarter, with Lions cornerback Travis Fisher in man coverage, five yards off the line of scrimmage. Fisher expected Romo to throw to Owens along the right sideline, and so he stood his ground in the spot where Owens wanted to run his route. Owens ran directly into Fisher, pushed off, and got flagged for offensive pass interference before making a four-yard catch. The Lions declined the penalty, so Owens' catch counted, but it was a great play by Fisher, who knew Owens would push off in that situation and set himself up like a basketball player taking a charging foul. If opposing cornerbacks can be confident that the officials will call offensive pass interference â€“- a big "if," to be sure â€“- that might be the single best way to play against Owens: Get in his way when he wants to run a curl route and wait for him to shove you.
The next play, however, was the Lions' worst play against Owens. It was third-and-4, and this time both cornerback Keith Smith and safety Gerald Alexander were in coverage, but Smith slipped to the turf when Owens made his cut, and Owens broke Alexander's tackle. The coverage scheme on the play was sound, but sure tackling is imperative when playing against Owens, and the Lions didn't have it on that play. It was ultimately linebacker Ernie Sims who pushed Owens out of bounds after a gain of 13.
Owens' other catch came on a second-and-3, when he lined up on the left sideline, with Smith covering him, lined up two yards off the line of scrimmage. Smith dropped into coverage as if he expected a long pass, but Owens broke off his route just past the first-down marker, leaving himself wide-open. As soon as Romo looked in Owens' direction, Alexander and Sims ran straight to him, and they managed to tackle him for a gain of only four yards. Obviously, no defense wants to give up a four-yard pass on second-and-3, but keeping Owens in front of the defense and making the tackle as soon as he gets the ball is the way to stop him, and the Lions did that effectively.
There was only one play when the Lions' coverage totally broke down against Owens. It was a second-and-6 on the Cowboys' final drive, with Lions cornerback Dovonte Edwards matched up with Owens, who made a nice inside move past Edwards to get open. But Romo threw a little bit behind Owens, who wasn't able to reach back and grab the ball. A perfectly thrown pass could have gone for a long gain, but Romo was just a bit off the mark.
Owens said after the game, "They had two and three guys on me. Sometimes even four." I never saw Owens actually get quadruple-covered, but it was clear that the Lions' first priority was taking Owens out of the game.
The problem with paying so much attention to Owens is that Romo spent all day throwing short passes to his other receivers. Almost all of Witten's catches came on passes caught within a few yards of the line of scrimmage, with the deep safeties giving him a huge space in the middle of the field. But while Witten has been discussed thoroughly this week, he wasn't the only Cowboy who had a big receiving day; Marion Barber had a career-high 10 catches for 61 yards.
The Cowboys exploited the Lions' emphasis on Owens all day long. A perfect example of this came near the end of the first half, when Romo hit Barber with an eight-yard touchdown pass. On the play, Owens lined up wide to the left and ran a route toward the middle of the field. The Detroit secondary gave up the sideline area to follow Owens, and when Barber ran a short route to the left side of the field, the only Lion even close to the play was defensive end Dewayne White. That is, to say the least, a bad matchup for the Lions, and it was an easy touchdown catch for Barber.
In fact, although Witten had the big game, it was actually the passes to Barber on which it was most obvious that the Lions were focusing on Owens. On a first-and-10 late in the third quarter, the Lions rushed four and dropped seven into coverage, and when Owens ran a deep post route, the Lions were so focused on stopping the deep pass that by the time Romo looked to dump the ball off to Barber, linebacker Ernie Sims was almost 10 yards downfield. No other Lion in coverage was within even 15 yards. Barber picked up a very easy eight yards.
Although the middle of the field was open for Barber and Witten all day, all things considered, you'd still have to say the Lions had the right idea in their approach to stopping the Cowboys. Just as the Eagles and Ravens showed that you can at least slow down â€“- if not stop -- the Patriots' offense by preventing big plays to Randy Moss, the Lions at least managed to play a competitive game against a much better team on Sunday, in large part because they kept Owens in check.
Finally, it must be noted that on several plays, Owens clearly wasn't giving his all, giving up on routes and failing to block downfield after completions to Barber or Witten. Owens said all the right things after the game about just being glad the team won, but his conduct on the field would suggest that if your strategy can take him out of the game early, he might take himself out of the game late. That might be the best reason to employ the Lions' strategy for how to cover Owens.
67 comments, Last at 19 Dec 2007, 10:08pm by im_no_playa