IRVING, Texas - Jim Johnson came up with an interesting remedy yesterday for getting struggling cornerback Lito Sheppard out of his season-long funk. He had him cover one of the league's most dangerous wide receivers.
Johnson, who normally doesn't match up his corners against specific receivers, had Sheppard shadow Cowboys wide receiver Terrell Owens most of the game. The result: Sheppard held Owens to two receptions for 37 yards and no touchdowns in the Eagles' 10-6 win.
"We felt it was going to be a good challenge for Lito,'' Johnson said. "And I think he looked forward to it.
"He's had just a so-so kind of year. It was a thing where we said, you can run with T.O.
You're one of the guys who can run with him in this league. So we decided to match him up with him, and he did a great job. Maybe we'll do it more, I don't know. But it was a great, focused job. He studied him. He did a good job with him.''
The last time the Eagles and Cowboys met, Owens made mincemeat of the Birds' secondary, catching 10 passes for 174 yards and one touchdown in a 21-point Cowboys win.
But Johnson's defense played considerably better in the rematch. It held quarterback Tony Romo to 13 completions in 36 attempts. It intercepted him three times, including one by Sheppard. It put constant pressure on him, sacking him a season-high four times. And it allowed the Cowboys to convert just one of 13 third-down opportunities.
"It was all third-and-short, third-and-short in the first game,'' said middle linebacker Omar Gaither, who watched the Cowboys convert eight of 12 third-down tries against the Eagles last month. "We weren't able to get them in third-and-longs. Today we were.''
Eight of the Cowboys' third-down situations were 5 yards or more, including six of 10 yards or more.
"That was key,'' Sheppard said. "That's when we bring out our best; in third-and-long situations.''
This has been a tough season for Sheppard. He missed four early games with a knee sprain, and has played hurt almost the entire season.
Last week, he and the Eagles' other corner, Sheldon Brown, both played poorly in a 16-13 loss to the Giants in which Plaxico Burress torched them for seven catches for 136 yards a TD.
But nothing helped his confidence more last week than a Tuesday morning call from Johnson telling him he was giving him the responsibility of shutting down Owens, who came into the game with a league-best 1,270 receiving yards and 14 touchdown catches.
"I'm glad he gave me a heads-up,'' Sheppard said. "I got a chance to get my mind right early and do what I needed to do throughout the week to get prepared.
"I definitely don't think [the Cowboys] were expecting it. It was an all-out effort by the defense. I wouldn't have been able to do it without the d-line getting good pressure and safeties [helping] at times.''
Because of his ailing knee, Sheppard has only practiced, by Johnson's estimation, about 40 to 50 percent of the time this season. But after finding out he would be tailing Owens, he was on the practice field for just about every rep last week.
"They worked me pretty good. I got a lot of balls thrown my way in practice,'' he said. "A lot of work. [The coaches] know what I've been going through [with his knee]. The last two weeks, I've been getting healthier and healthier. I take my hat off to them for having confidence in me.''
Sheppard had a shaky moment early in the game. On the Cowboys' second offensive play, Owens beat him on a deep route. But Romo overthrew him. Owens didn't catch his first pass until 2 minutes into the fourth quarter. And that wasn't Sheppard's fault. The Eagles were in a zone coverage on that play, and Owens beat linebacker Takeo Spikes on an inside route for a 19-yard gain.
"Lito's a great corner who can run,'' Johnson said. "There aren't a lot of guys who can match up against T.O. in single coverage. But [secondary coach] Trent Walters recommended it and we decided to go with it.
"He was fired up about it all week. And he probably needed it.''
--To offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg for throwing on third-and-1 at the Dallas 29 on the Eagles' third possession. DeMarcus Ware came in unblocked and forced an incompletion. David Akers' 47-yard field goal attempt was wide left.
--To safety Quintin Mikell, for his poor decision to run his second-quarter interception out of the end zone. He fumbled on the 12-yard line, giving the Cowboys the ball back. They ended up kicking a field goal.
DID YOU NOTICE?
--Defensive end Jevon Kearse and cornerback William James both were healthy deactivations.
--Ken Hamlin's helmet-to-helmet hit on tight end Matt Schobel on the Eagles' first possession should have drawn a penalty. It almost certainly will draw a fine.
--The Eagles put Brian Westbrook back as the return man on the Cowboys' first punt of the game. He returned it 9 yards. It was the only time they used Westbrook on punt returns.
--The abysmal-looking flea-flicker the Eagles ran on their second possession. The Cowboys didn't bite at all and Donovan McNabb was sacked for a 7-yard loss by linebacker Bradie James.
--The Eagles had the ball for nearly 12 minutes in the first quarter.
--The missed block by right guard Max Jean-Gilles on nose tackle Jay Ratliff on a third-and-3 play at the Dallas 35 in the second quarter. Ratliff sacked McNabb, forcing the Eagles to punt.
--The Cowboys didn't get their first first down of the game until early in the second quarter.
--The missed tackle by safety Quintin Mikell on Jason Witten's 53-yard catch and run in the second quarter.
--The Eagles squandered two timeouts on a replay challenge of a Quintin Mikell fumble following his second-quarter interception. They used one timeout to prevent Dallas from running a play while they deliberated whether to challenge it. Then they lost another one when they challenged it and lost.
--The impressive display of speed by linebacker Takeo Spikes in chasing down Julius Jones in the second quarter. Spikes tackled Jones for a 4-yard loss.
--The poor throw by Donovan McNabb on a third-and-5 to a wide-open Brent Celek in the second quarter.
--Akeem Jordan made a nice special- teams play early in the third quarter when he prevented Cowboys punt returner Patrick Crayton from getting to the outside on a return. If Jordan hadn't slowed down Crayton and he had been able to turn the corner, he was looking at a long return, maybe even a touchdown.
--Tony Romo had a 9.8 passer rating in the first half.
--The failure of running back Tony Hunt to pick up blitzing DeMarcus Ware on a third-and-3 play in the third quarter.
BY THE NUMBERS
--The Eagles won the turnover battle for just the fourth time this season. They are 2-2 in those games.
--Donovan McNabb has thrown just six interceptions in 397 pass attempts this season. His 1.51 percent interception rate is the best of his career. But his 3.78 percent touchdown rate is his lowest since 2003, when he had just 16 touchdown passes in 478 attempts (3.34).
--With 144 yards from scrimmage against the Cowboys, Brian Westbrook has a league-best 1,896 for the season. He had 1,916 last year.
--Westbrook has 25 or more touches in 11 of the 13 games he's played this season. He's averaged 28 touches in the last seven games.
--McNabb has been sacked once every 12.68 pass plays this season.
--Opponents have converted just 13 of 43 third-down opportunities against the Eagles in the last three games.
--With yesterday's win, the Eagles are 4-2 this season in games in which they've led at halftime.
--The Eagles have allowed just 3.8 yards per carry on the ground this season. Through 14 games last season, they had allowed 4.45 per carry.
--Westbrook has just one fumble in his last 978 rushing attempts.