Through the first four weeks of the 2010 season, Terrell Owens and Chad Ochocinco of the Cincinnati Bengals have combined for 47 receptions.
That's not the NFL's current top total for a pair of wideouts on the same team – in fact, it's not even in the top three. But it certainly represents outstanding production, and when one factors in the outsized personalities cultivated by Owens and Ochocinco, you're not going to find a pair that draws more attention, on and off the field.
So with all due respect to Indianapolis' Reggie Wayne and Austin Collie (65 combined catches), Denver's Brandon Lloyd and Eddie Royal (50) and Miami's Brandon Marshall and Davone Bess (49), the T.O. and Ocho Show can take over a game week like no other.
"They're great," said Mike Williams, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' up-and-coming rookie at the same position. "They're two great receivers I always looked up to. Those two on the same team – that's crazy. It's like somebody's cheating. If you're playing a game and you're making a team and picking receivers, and you pick Ocho and T.O., that's cheating."
The Bengals obviously have a lot more going for them than just Owens and Ochocinco, including the NFL's sixth-ranked defense. On offense, they also have a two-time Pro Bowler at quarterback in Carson Palmer, and a power running back, Cedric Benson, who rushed for more than 1,200 yards last year. The Buccaneers are preparing for 53 Bengals, not two. Still, most opponents have a specific strength or two that makes for a unique challenge, and with Cincinnati that challenge is easy to find. The success Owens and Ochocinco are having together as first-time teammates in 2010 just builds on their outsized career achievements, including 1,737 career receptions between them.
"They make it tough on you," conceded Buccaneers Head Coach Raheem Morris. "But you've got to go out there and play. You've got some good players for a reason. There's Aqib Talib and Ronde Barber. There's E.J. Biggers, who's playing well this year. You've got Cody Grimm and Sean Jones going out there – for those guys, it's a nice challenge. It's a nice challenge to go out there and tackle, get those guys down and do their responsibilities. That's the main thing you've got to do."
The Buccaneers will game plan for the Bengals two tall and rangy receivers, but their goal will be to win the game, not necessarily blank Owens and Ocho. The Browns, for instance, probably don't care that they allowed Owens to become the oldest receiver (36) ever to surpass 200 yards in a game last Sunday since the final score favored Cleveland.
"There's not a real general philosophy about trying to shut down a guy," said Morris. "It's really hard to shut down good players in this football league. What you've got to do is figure out a way to win and then follow the course. That's what we try to do every single week. You can't get too caught up in who those guys are because then you start to lose who you are. The fact that Terrell Owens and Ochocinco are on their team has to be grey matter to a certain degree. There are certain times in the game when you've got to do certain things to try to take them away, or take away their best attributes, but for the most part it's about what us. It's about we want to do and we want to go out and execute those things."
The Bucs' game-planning for the Bengals and their sixth-ranked passing attack could include a somewhat more prevalent usage of the Tampa Two defense. Though the Buccaneers and Cover Two schemes are often believed to be synonymous, Tampa Bay has actually employed the two-deep-safety look fairly infrequently this year, favoring a more aggressive approach. Since it's difficult to choose which of the Bengals' two big-play receivers deserves extra help over the top, sometimes that treatment will be afforded to both of them.
"Every game is different," said Morris. "The first three weeks of the season we had two or three big-time running football organizations come in here so the Tampa Two wasn't a primary factor of what we wanted to get done and how we wanted to try to win that football game. Now you've got two big-time wideouts and also a team with a good running game. You want to go in there and cover those guys and take some pressure off the outside guys but be able to do some things up front where you can stop the run as well.
"So you've got to find a happy medium to get all that accomplished. I'm not telling you we're going to go out there and play Tampa Two every single snap, but you will get a chance to see some more Cover Two. They know that, there's no secret. They've seen it all year. People do the same thing. It's a copycat league. You've got to mix those things in, you've got to mix and match."
In Week One, the Buccaneers shut down return threat Josh Cribbs, bent but held against a power Cleveland rushing attack and avoided getting burned by the Browns' Wildcat packages. In Week Two, they handled Carolina's prolific rushing duo of DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart. Both performances resulted in victories. In Week Three, the power running of Rashard Mendenhall and Pittsburgh's 3-4 defensive pressure was too much, and the Bucs lost. Unique challenges – some handled well, some not well enough. T.O. and Ocho are the next such challenge.
" Usually you can roll coverage one way or the other, but since they've got two receivers we're going to have to figure out a way to stop both of them," said safety Cody Grimm. "If a team has one really dominant receiver you can put a safety over the top and another safety in the hole, stuff like that, but when you have two receivers like this, you can't really adjust to one or the other. It's going to be fun. They're a passing team. It's a lot different than the Steelers but it will be exciting. It's definitely different than most teams but I'm sure Coach Morris will dial up something nice and we'll have a good game plan."
And just as the Buccaneers will be looking for a way to deal with those two receivers, the Bengals will surely adjust to whatever their opponents throw at them defensively. Morris said that both Owens and Ochocinco are content to catch underneath passes all day and try to make yards after the catch if the opposing defense goes to great pains to take away the deep ball. In the end, it will surely be a strategy more complicated than that, just as stopping the Bengals' offense is more complex than just smothering Owens and Ochocinco.
"These guys will take what you give them," said Morris. "You've got to be able to put some pressure in Carson Palmer's face. You've got to be able to get to him, which we need to get better at, which you can see from the first three-game review. And we've got to be able to get after those receivers on the outside and be competitive when the ball is in the air. If we can do those things, we'll have a chance. We look forward to the challenge of this week."