There has been a ton of discussion across many media outlets this week regarding the high level at which the Broncos are playing and when you watch them on film, it is easy to see. They have the best quarter back in football (of all-time IMO) and he has "A Vast Array of Weaponry" (shoutout to KD's Fantasy team with that name, who my team defeated in Week 3) with which to attack defenses. You see him gain an increased understanding throughout the game of what defenses are trying to do to him, and they put up flurries of points in second halves.
It is true that Demaryius Thomas, Eric Decker, Wes Welker, and Julius Thomas present a ton of problems for defenses, however, with the exception of a game against a bad Raiders team, Denver hasn't dominated opponents from start to finish. In Week 1 against the Ravens, Denver trailed 17-14 at the half, in Week 2 vs the Giants, it was 10-9 Broncos at the intermission, and in Week 4 they led the Philadelphia Eagles 21-13 after two quarters. These are hardly dominating performances.
However, in the third quarters of these games, the Broncos scored 21, 14, & 21 points respectively. While giving up only a single TD to the Giants. So these games were blown open by a flurry of points and stops over a 15-minute period that made the games look completely outlandish. These third quarter performances have been followed by fourth quarters featuring teams scrambling to score points as fast as possible, throwing out the game plan and trying to make big plays. Denver has been able to answer with pressure packages and turnovers, as well as big plays in the kicking game that keep their opponents out of the game.
My keys for the Cowboys are as follows:
- Execute on Offense (particularly on 3rd Down) - If the Cowboys can run the ball for 4-5 ypc like they have the last couple of weeks, and get in manageable 3rd down situations, leaving the run as a viable option on the money down, they will have a chance, but they can't have penalties, drops, or missed blocks on these downs. They have to extend drives, not necessarily to prevent Peyton Manning from being on the field, but more to match the production he is likely to create.
- Make tackles on receivers immediately after the catch - My bold prediction for the game: someone from the Broncos will catch a pass on Sunday afternoon. The important part for the Cowboys is to rally to the ball, and make solid tackles in space and prevent major yards after the catch from guys like Welker and D. Thomas.
- Don't give up the big return in the kicking game- Trindon Holliday has been a difference maker as a returner for the Broncos. His big returns have both scored points, and set up the offense for quick strike 3-6 play TD drives that are hard for a defense to contend with, regardless of the opposing offenses capabilities.
- Take advantage of the opportunities that come your way: The Broncos will make 1-2 mistakes over the course of the game which will present opportunities for the Cowboys to make a big play. Whether it's a busted coverage in the secondary, a fumble, or an errant throw by #18. You can't afford to have these opportunities slip through your hands the way they did against Kansas City and San Diego, or you will get blown out. You have to know the opportunity will come, and be looking for it, and when it comes you have to make the play.
- Sustain a drive in the third quarter- I talked about it a lot already, if you can withstand the onslaught that will come in the 3rd quarter, and make a couple of plays yourself to sustain a drive and score a touchdown, you should be able to be in the game in the fourth quarter, and I like Tony Romo in the fourth quarter of tight games.
The Denver defense led by defensive coordinator, and next coach of the USC Trojans, Jack Del Rio, have been playing without their best player, Von Miller, who is suspended for 6 games, and their veteran leader, Champ Bailey who is suffering from a foot injury. However, they have had the benefit of playing with large leads in the late parts of games, allowing them to focus on stopping one dimensional opponents in the air, and putting pressure on QBs.
Let's look at an interesting wrinkle from Del Rio's unit that I believe will point to what the Cowboys will see on Sunday.
In this shot, the Giants are in 11 Personnel in a 2x2 Far formation with the Broncos in Nickel personnel. This particular scheme from the Denver D is an interesting way to attempt to get pressure with 4 players, even if the 4 aren't your 4 down linemen.
On this play, the Bronco's essentially exchange their Nickel CB for their Closed (Strongside) defensive end in the pass rush.
The nickel CB Chris Harris, comes off the open edge, while the DE on that side twists inside his adjacent DT and the opposite DT, scoops to the contain rush responsibility. The Broncos are now in a Cover 1 "Robber" look with their DE playing man to man coverage on the Giants TE. He does have immediate help from the Sam LB and help over the top by the safety. This look creates the illusion for Eli Manning that there are more than 4 guys coming in the pressure scheme, while still being very sound from a coverage stand point.
As I watch the Broncos defense I see these ideas often, whether it's a 4 man rush like this, or a fire zone (5 man rush with 3 deep 3 under zone coverage behind it), the Broncos will bring different players at the QB from all over the field, but they do so with out jeopardizing themselves on the back end in coverage.
I think, just like every team every Sunday in the NFL, the Cowboys have a chance to win this week. They will have to be very good, if not perfect in each of the areas I discussed above, but I truly believe they have a chance. If they can force Manning to drive the length of the field, without help from turnovers, or big returns, they can increase the likelihood he makes a mistake, or someone else on his unit does, and give themselves an opportunity to win it at the end.