Passing will test Cowboys

January 19, 1994|By New York Times News Service

IRVING, Texas -- If the Dallas Cowboys are to beat the San Francisco 49ers on Sunday for the NFC championship and a Super Bowl berth -- and the Cowboys are favored -- they must control the 49ers' passing game.

And that means putting the reins on Jerry Rice, perhaps the best receiver in NFL history; John Taylor, perhaps the most underrated wide receiver in pro football; Steve Young, perhaps the best quarterback going; a wise, veteran offensive line and a few other assets. Did we forget Ricky Watters' running?

The Cowboys' defense faces a big task. But that same quick and aggressive secondary handled Sterling Sharpe, the Green Bay Packers' marvelous receiver, when it counted last Sunday.

"Playing the 49ers," said Larry Brown, a Cowboys cornerback, "is like going from a headache with Sterling Sharpe to the flu with Jerry Rice."

Kevin Smith, the Cowboys' other cornerback, said the Cowboys were familiar enough with the 49ers because they played them early this season. And the Packers' offense is similar to the 49ers'.

"But the big thing," Smith said, "is that the talent is different. The 49ers have more weapons."

One way to deal with a troublesome offense is to keep it guessing what comes next. A predictable defense will be burned sooner or later, so Bill Bates said the Cowboys must keep mixing up coverages.

"When a team has so many good receivers," Bates said, "sometimes you bump them, sometimes you lay off them, sometimes you press them. You show them some zone and some man. We definitely know we can beat them. That confidence helps, but it doesn't mean you're going to win."

Bates is an example of how specialized the Cowboys' defense, in particular, and pro football defenses, in general, have become. Bates is a veteran backup safety and special-teams captain.

He also plays linebacker in the nickel defense on third down when the opposition needs 7 yards or more for a first down. For fewer than 7 yards, Ken Norton Jr., the starting middle linebacker, stays in the game because he is bigger than Bates and better against the run.

The Cowboys' starting secondary has Brown and Smith at the corners, Thomas Everett at free safety and Darren Woodson at )) strong safety. Kenny Gant (sometimes Brock Marion) is the nickel back, James Washington the dime back.

Everett is the best hitter, Smith the best closer. Marion is a rookie, Smith and Woodson are in their second pro seasons and Brown is in his third, a young group.

"I like them," said Dave Campo, the Cowboys secondary coach. "The corners are good cover people, good bump and run. The safeties are smart, and Everett gets turnovers in big games. They give us good run support.

"The 49ers are almost unstoppable between the 20s, so we have to get turnovers and make things happen. We'll use a lot of nickel, but we can't double the wideouts all the time because their running game will get you inside. You have to name your poison."

The best tool for a pass defense is a strong rush. Although the Cowboys have good pass rushers in Tony Tolbert, Jim Jeffcoat, Jimmie Jones and Charles Haley, their regular-season total of 34 sacks was little more than two a game.

They had four sacks against the 49ers when they beat them, 26-17, in the sixth game of the season. They allowed the 49ers to gain 405 yards, and Young completed 24 of 33 passes for 249 yards, but the Cowboys did not give up the big-scoring play.

"Our pass defense isn't difficult or complicated," Norton said. "The main thing on coverage is quarterback pressure. You have to know how the other team is going after you.

"The 49ers will stretch you. They have a lot of confidence in their receivers. They like to turn a short catch into a long run. They keep slanting on you and will lull you and then they fly. You better be there."

When the 49ers' offense starts rolling, it usually picks up momentum. That concerns Jeffcoat, a wise old head in his 11th pro season. "It's like the run and shoot," he said. "When they get going, they're going to keep it up and they can slaughter you."

Cowboys coach Jimmy Johnson concedes that the 49ers will move the ball passing.

"You try to slow them down and not give up the big play," he said. "Rice and Taylor are such good receivers after the catch that even if you're in a zone they have the ability to break it. So what's the answer? I don't know that we have the answers."

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