by Michael David Smith
Cowboys wide receiver Terrell Owens had the most productive game of his career on Sunday, and that's saying something, considering that this is the guy who owns the NFL record for catches in a game, with 20 against the Bears in 2000.
Owens had the third-best DPAR game ever in Sunday's 28-23 win over the Washington Redskins. (His 20-catch game is the fourth-best DPAR game ever.) But he was also aided by a Redskins defense that seemed particularly ill-prepared to cover him, providing something of a blueprint for how not to play against T.O.
Tony Romo threw 11 passes to Owens Sunday, and Owens caught eight of them, for 173 yards and four touchdowns. Here we examine each of those 11 passes, looking at what worked for the Cowboys and what didn't work for the Redskins.
First-and-10, Dallas 39-yard line
Owens was split to the left, with Redskins cornerback Shawn Springs covering him, lined up about five yards off the line of scrimmage. Owens ran a curl route and was at the first-down maker when Romo hit him, with safety Reed Doughty coming over to help Springs. It was a 10-yard gain and a first down, but at least Doughty and Springs kept Owens in front of them and tackled him as soon as he got the ball. As you'll see, that would make it one of the better plays the Redskins had against Owens.
First-and-10, Washington 40-yard line
This was the best result of the day for the Redskins on a pass to Owens, but it was more a bad play by Cowboys center Andre Gurode than a good play by the Redskins' defense. Gurode sent the shotgun snap over Romo's head, and Romo ran back to pick it up. The play broke down, but Romo grabbed the ball and scrambled outside the pocket. Incredibly, Owens broke into the clear and was wide-open downfield. Romo saw Owens and heaved the ball, but it came up well short, and by the time the ball got there, Springs had caught up to Owens. They both jumped for the ball, it was deflected into the air, and Redskins linebacker London Fletcher intercepted. If Romo had been able to get everything into the throw it would have been a touchdown for Owens, and opposing defenses will need to learn that just because the play breaks down in front of them, that doesn't mean Romo can't find Owens.
Second-and-3, Dallas 42-yard line
This is how you cover Terrell Owens. Owens was lined up to the right with Springs in coverage, about seven yards off the line of scrimmage. Romo saw how far off the line Springs was and threw to Owens immediately, but Springs made a nice move to get to Owens and tackle him short of the first-down marker. If you're a cornerback matched up with Owens, you need to do two things: Keep him in front of you and make sound tackles. Springs did both.
Third-and-4, Washington 43-yard line
This play made the highlights because Gurode's shotgun snap again went over Romo's head, but Romo still managed to pick it up, run outside the pocket, and hit Owens for five yards and a first down. But while it was a great recovery by Romo, the play wouldn't have worked if it hadn't been for Owens recognizing that Romo was in trouble and breaking all the way across the field to get open along the left sideline. Springs appeared to briefly give up on his coverage, and you can't do that against Owens.
Third-and-15, Washington 32-yard line
Romo rolled out to his right, felt the Redskins' pressure, then turned around and threw across the field off his back foot. It was a great throw. Springs was matched up one-on-one with Owens and seemed to think Owens was going to break to the inside, but Owens got a step on Springs when he cut to the outside. Owens caught Romo's pass to set the Cowboys up with first-and-goal.
Second-and-goal, Washington 4-yard line
Owens was split out to the left, on an island with Springs. Did anyone not know what was coming? Owens took one step to the inside and then released to the outside, and that was all it took to have a step on Springs and force him to turn his back to the ball. Once that happened and Owens was getting into position in the end zone, Springs probably should have just given Owens a hard shove and pushed him out of bounds. There's really no way to cover Owens when you're in that position, and a pass interference penalty is better than a touchdown.
Third-and-3, Dallas 44-yard line
Owens was flanked to the right with Springs right on top of him, but Springs did a very nice job in his backpedal and kept Owens in front of him. Springs wisely didn't try to get a jam on Owens; jamming Owens at the line is usually futile because Owens is stronger than just about every NFL defensive back. Instead, Springs just tried to keep up with Owens, step for step. It worked. Springs did need to turn his back on the play when Owens released upfield, but he stayed so close to Owens that Owens never had a chance at the ball. This was Springs' best play.
Third-and-19, Washington 31-yard line
Owens was lined up to the left and the Redskins were in Cover-2. Fletcher really tipped his hand by turning his back on the play before the snap, making it obvious that the deep middle of the field was his responsibility. Owens ran right down the seam, between a huge hole in the coverage of safeties Leigh Torrence and LaRon Landry, who bit on Romo's pump fake. By the time the ball Owens caught in the end zone, Springs was actually the closest defender to Owens, but that was just a good athletic play by Springs trying to get there to help out; the coverage breakdown wasn't Springs' fault.
Second-and-13, Washington 46-yard line
The Redskins were in the standard Tampa-2 coverage, with two deep safeties splitting the field and Fletcher dropping back at the snap and responsible for the deep middle. (This time Fletcher was in correct position at the snap and didn't have his back to the play.) Owens, in the slot to the right, ran 10 yards downfield and turned inside to sell the crossing route. That caused Fletcher to turn, thinking Owens would break right in front of him. Instead, Owens turned it upfield and was gone, easily running past Fletcher and between the two safeties, catching Romo's pass in stride inside the 10-yard line and strolling into the end zone. If you're going to play the Tampa-2 and the other team has a receiver as good as Owens in the slot, you've got to have your safeties closer to the middle of the field. The Redskins' safeties were outside the hashmarks, and that gave Romo and Owens an easy target. The Redskins' best safety, Sean Taylor, was out Sunday, and the two safeties on the field for the Redskins on the play were Landry and Doughty. Perhaps if Taylor had been there, he could have gotten to Owens as the ball arrived and drilled him, but without Taylor it was an easy defense for Romo and Owens to dissect.
Second-and-10, Dallas 48-yard line
This was Owens' fourth and final touchdown. Owens was split to the right with Springs on him and John Eubanks providing safety help up top. The biggest problem for the Redskins is that Springs was looking in the backfield, and he appeared to bite on Romo's play fake to Marion Barber. Why Springs would bite on a play fake when he wouldn't have been able to get there to make the tackle anyway I don't know, but it got Owens past Springs for Romo to hit him, and then Eubanks missed the tackle. I actually blame Eubanks more than Springs; sound tackling is an absolute must when you're playing against Owens, and the Redskins didn't have it on that play.
First-and-10, Dallas 19-yard line
This was Romo's last pass to Owens, and it fell incomplete. The blame lies mostly on Romo, who underthrew Owens on a curl route, but it was a good play in coverage by Springs, who kept Owens in front of him.
The primary conclusion we can draw, I think, is that opposing defensive coordinators can't just go out there thinking they're going to run a standard defense, especially a Cover-2 defense, and make no adjustments for the fact that Romo-to-Owens is such a phenomenal passing combo. I was reminded a bit of Steve Smith running wild for 12 catches against the Bears in the playoffs two years ago, when the Bears steadfastly refused to change their game plan and were beaten as a result.
Of course, stopping Owens is easier said than done. There may not be a blueprint for how to cover Owens. But the Redskins provided the blueprint for how not to do it.
Each week, Michael David Smith looks at one specific player or one aspect of a team on every single play of the previous game. Standard caveat applies: Yes, one game is not necessarily an indicator of performance over the entire season.