Owens key to Cowboys' success
After the Eagles handed them a stunning 10-6 upset loss, the Cowboys had more questions than answers. They averaged just 12.3 points per game over their last four games, including their playoff loss to the Giants. Owens caught just two passes for 37 yards against the Eagles, and he wouldn't gain more than 50 yards in a game for the rest of the season.
The Cowboys' offense is loaded with weapons, but Owens is the key to their system. He's targeted 9.4 times per game, and nearly a quarter of those passes are thrown 15 or more yards downfield. When the Cowboys routed the Eagles 38-17 in Week 9 last season, Owens caught 10 passes for 174 yards. Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Johnson didn't blitz much in that contest; he dropped extra defenders into zones and tried to roll the coverage to stop Owens. The plan backfired, and Owens found plenty of soft spots to exploit.
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Johnson made adjustments for the rematch. Last year, the Eagles usually lined cornerbacks Lito Sheppard and Sheldon Brown on the left and right sides, regardless of the location of the opponent's top receiver. Johnson only assigned his top cornerback (Sheppard when healthy, Brown in the five games Sheppard missed) to the other team's No. 1 receiver on 42 percent of all passing plays, a figure that ranked 21st in the NFL. For the Dallas rematch, Johnson assigned Owens to Sheppard for nearly the entire game. Tony Romo threw 12 passes to Owens, who caught two of them. Seven fell incomplete, four of them with Sheppard in coverage. Three were intercepted, one by Sheppard, two by safeties Brian Dawkins and Quintin Mikell, because no one should have to cover Owens alone.
Johnson also brought back the blitz for the December rematch. The Eagles are one of the most blitz-happy teams in the NFL, sending six or seven defenders on 19.7 percent of pass plays, the second-highest total in the league. The Cowboys held the strangely conservative Eagles sackless in their Week 9 victory. In Week 15, the Eagles dumped Romo four times and forced a fumble.
Johnson has more options this season if he hopes to blanket Owens with one-on-one coverage. Free-agent acquisition Asante Samuel, coming off an excellent game against Torry Holt, could take over as the designated Owens chaser. Or Johnson could opt for Brown or Sheppard, who have more experience against their former teammate. While Sheppard is nominally the nickelback, he plays almost as many snaps as Brown, who shifts to free safety in some packages. Johnson said last week that Samuel was on the field for 41 snaps against the Rams, Brown for 34, and Sheppard for 31. The Eagles have the best three-deep cornerback corps in the league, allowing Johnson to unleash even more kitchen-sink blitzes without fear of a downfield mismatch."We're a lot quicker than we have been," Johnson said last week. "With the addition of Asante, there's so much more coverage skills back there."
The presence of three starting-caliber cornerbacks will also help the Eagles contain the Cowboys' second-most dangerous receiving weapon: Jason Witten. Witten caught 11 passes for 190 yards in two games against the Eagles last year; unlike Owens, he wasn't silenced in the rematch, catching eight passes. The Eagles played most opposing tight ends tough last season, ranking sixth in the NFL in defense-adjusted value over average (DVOA) despite a schedule that included two meetings each from Witten, Chris Cooley and Jeremy Shockey (An explanation of DVOA and other Football Outsiders stats can be found here). Witten got the better of them, but Brown is the type of physical cornerback who can match up well with a fast tight end.
The Cowboys' offense never bounced back after the Week 15 loss, in part because Owens suffered a nagging ankle injury. But just as Johnson adjusted after his Eagles lost in Week 9, Cowboys offensive coordinator Jason Garrett made changes after the early playoff exit. Most of the names are the same in Dallas, but the offense is a little different, with new formations and more motion. Johnson admitted this week that it won't be easy to isolate a cornerback on the Cowboys' best receiver.
"They're moving T.O. around a little bit more than last year," he said in Monday's news conference.
Even if the Eagles do shut down the Cowboys' offense, they may have trouble scoring themselves: Philadelphia netted just 240 yards of total offense against Dallas in the Week 15 upset, and while Donovan McNabb is healthier this season, his receiving corps isn't.
After Week 1, some fans are expecting a shootout, but the Cowboys and Eagles have the defensive personnel and schemes to stalemate each other. Monday night's final score may not be 10-6, but don't expect offensive fireworks like the ones these teams put up last week.
Mike Tanier is Contributing Editor at FootballOutsiders.com and a co-author of Pro Football Prospectus 2008, available in bookstores now.
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