How do you handle a problem like T.O.?

He's big, he's strong, and he has one of the widest mouths the NFL ever has seen. But those are just a few of the problems Terrell Owens will present the 49ers on Sunday.

With the Eagles' ground game experiencing some difficulties – it ranks 27th in the NFL after one week – Owens figures to be Philadelphia's go-to guy even more so than usual Sunday against his former teammates as the defending NFC champions attempt to get their offense untracked.

That's a scary thought for the 49ers, just as it is for any team, because Owens truly is a mismatch waiting to happen almost any place in any NFL secondary.

Forget his pompous style and penchant for creating controversy before, during and after games. Owens is an offensive terror that must be reckoned with between the white lines, one of the elite game-breaking talents in the NFL today.

"All that a receiver can give you, he gives you," marveled 49ers defensive coordinator Billy Davis, the man responsible for designing a plan this week that can at least neutralize Philly's All-Pro receiver.

"He's an outstanding player," Davis continued. "He can run block, he can go vertical, he can run the underneath route. He's a big, physical player that if you get the ball into his hands, good things are going to happen to that offense. He's a big guy that competes. He plays hard and it's tough to match his competition level. We have to be at our best from a competing standpoint to try to stay with him."

After his messy divorce from the 49ers last year, Owens certainly will be motivated in his first meeting with his former team. That's an added challenge he poses to San Francisco's defensive backs, several of whom know a thing or two about Owens after going up against him in practice for years.

Owens had seven receptions for 112 yards in the Eagles' 14-10 loss to the Falcons last week. Quarterback Donovan McNabb, who is questionable for Sunday's game with a chest bruise but already has guaranteed that he will play, threw 18 passes toward Owens, who may be the best receiver the San Francisco defense will face this year.

"Yeah, there aren't too many T.O.-like wide receivers," 49ers cornerback Ahmed Plummer said. "He has the size of a tight end. Most tight ends are about his size, but his speed is like a wide receiver's. That does present a little bit of a challenge. I'm sure he'll be charged up. We'll be charged up, too."

Owens lines up all over the field. He spends time on both sides, as well as the slot positions. That is why second-year cornerback Shawntae Spencer said he has not focused as much on Owens as he has the entire Philadelphia offense.

"He's a great, extraordinary athlete and the best receiver in the game," Spencer said. "But I can't approach it any different than any other game. If I don't prepare for their whole offense, it's going to be so much worse. I need to know when they line up in this formation, what they do - not what he does. What is the route combination? I'm not studying one particular person."

But the Niners will be zeroing in on one particular person when he gets the ball in his hands. As they well know, the best way to get in Owens' head is to bang him – and bang him hard.

"It's important for everyone to get licks on him," Davis said. "We have to be a physical defense in order to stay with this offense. We have to be as physical as we can be. That's tackling, that's running to the ball. That's how you compete with the champs, and that's what they are."

Safety Mike Rumph, who has shown the promise of being a hard-hitting head hunter in his move to free safety this season, likely will see Owens coming across the middle at some point Sunday. He relishes the opportunity for collision.

"I think our whole secondary wants to be a little more aggressive and more physical this year," Rumph said. "It's good to get out there and get some licks on any of their receivers, just to let them know we're going to be there all day and that's what kind of defense we're going to be playing."

The Niners would like to deliver that message early, before Owens has a chance to start running his mouth. There aren't a whole lot of secrets between the brash receiver and his former teammates. Both sides are well aware of each other's styles and capabilities – and what buttons might be pushed to make a difference during the heat of competition.

"We know Terrell," Davis said. "But Terrell also knows us."

Do the 49ers know T.O. well enough to stop him? They'll find out Sunday, when they certainly will be presented with the need to do so.

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