By Jason La Canfora
Monday, September 29, 2008
IRVING, Tex. The airwave chatter always centers on Terrell Owens, what with his outrageous displays and outsize personality, but he was not the biggest concern for the Washington Redskins on Sunday. From the moment the schedule came out in the spring, defensive coordinator Greg Blache knew how he would attack the receiver, by siccing physical cornerback Shawn Springs on him in press man coverage.
The Dallas player who keeps defensive coordinators up at night assumes a far less public posture, is not ego-driven and acts as quarterback Tony Romo's security blanket on third downs and most critical situations. Tight end Jason Witten, with his 6-foot-5, 266-pound frame, explosive speed and soft hands, was the pass catcher most feared in this final regular season meeting between these teams at Texas Stadium.
The Redskins, who won 26-24, executed a detailed and diverse game plan on the Pro Bowl tight end, eliminating him for large chunks of the game and smothering him for the better part of three quarters, when their lead stretched to a comfortable nine points. The Cowboys were the NFL's premier third-down team entering this game, converting a staggering 60 percent of those opportunities (the NFL average is 37 percent), with Witten the league's leading third-down receiver. The Redskins tailored their third-down defense to him, usually doubling him and not Owens in these situations, while also eliminating the big plays that doomed the club in its visit to Dallas a year ago.
"We gave them a lot of good looks," said Springs, who suffocated Owens before leaving in the third quarter with what he believes is a calf strain. "A lot of times we doubled Witten on third down and said we'll go with T.O. one-on-one. We had a great plan."
Witten had only one third-down catch in the game and it did not produce a first down. He caught a 21-yard touchdown pass, but his contributions were infrequent and he and Romo never built a rhythm. Dallas was 6 for 12 on third down and did not have a play over 23 yards all game -- damning for such a dynamic outfit. Witten had just five receptions for 52 yards through three quarters until catching two balls late with time running out and Dallas needing two scores.
"We knew from our study the situations where they like to go to Witten," Blache said.
Blache alternated giving him man and zone looks, focused practice all week on eliminating the underneath routes the tight end thrives on and used a wide swath of his roster to cover him at different times (corner Fred Smoot, rookie safety Chris Horton, safety Reed Doughty and linebackers Marcus Washington, Rocky McIntosh and London Fletcher took turns on him, depending on where he lined up).
"Usually, we're able to hit the things underneath and make big plays out of them." Witten said. "We just didn't play our style, which is disappointing, especially with a team like this."
Doughty said: "That was a big game plan: Look at who they go to on different downs. And Witten is their big third-down guy. Sometimes we got a few linebackers on him, and sometimes it was just a safety. He's a big guy, and you've got to play him hard. Unfortunately, he got a few catches in the end that I'd like to have back, but I'm glad we won the game."
Romo first turned to Witten on Dallas's first third down of the game (third and 10 from the 35), in a three-wide set, and Blache put his team in Cobra, a three safety package. Doughty was deployed as a linebacker, free safety LaRon Landry crept to the line before retreating deep and Horton assumed the zone coverage on Witten's side. Horton, who has three interceptions in just two starts, latched onto Witten six yards downfield, as soon as he caught the ball, and the Cowboys had to punt. Smoot, despite a six-inch size disparity, played aggressive man coverage on Witten on Dallas's next third down, the following drive (third and five), rising to the challenge, wrapping him up and breaking up the play.
Witten had just three catches for 33 yards at the half, but one was a 21-yard touchdown. It's a play that will haunt Blache, as he and many others knew it was coming. With Witten in the slot on a linebacker (Washington in this case) against a cover-2 look, Romo turned to his tight end on a seam route; Washington could not stay with him, Horton was caught out of position over the top, and Dallas had a 7-0 lead.
"There are four or five plays that will irk me," Blache said. "But that's about it."
Overall, the Redskins executed under adversity. Blache entered the game with just four corners and four safeties -- despite playing a preponderance of nickel defense -- then lost Springs and Smoot in the second half. End Jason Taylor, their best pass rusher, was injured and the Redskins rarely got a hand on Romo, yet still managed to play superior coverage for much of the game. They have neutralized three elite passing teams during this three-game win streak, with the secondary worthy of buzz around the league.
With defensive backs in short supply, Blache relied on his Cobra package more in the second half. He played with just a single high safety much of the first half -- helping to stuff brutish tailback Marion Barber (eight carries for just 26 yards) -- and Landry excelled at sending Romo conflicting signals, shifting and sprinting before the snap, giving the appearance of playing the run before settling back into centerfield, or shading over the top of Witten or Owens.
"We tried to disguise what the count was in the box, and who was being doubled," Blache said. "He did a very good job with that."
Blache and his staff were again wizards juggling personnel in the 85-degree heat (all eight active defensive linemen had taken multiple reps by the 10-minute mark of the game. He curtailed his play calling late when short on corners, and with Dallas running a spread offense, and Witten sometimes split wide, players had to adjust. "I basically played corner for about eight plays," Doughty said. Secondary coaches Jerry Gray and Steve Jackson told Blache the "three or four calls" he could still utilize with players out of position, and they hung on to win a game many believed they would not.