The Cowboys face perhaps their toughest challenge this afternoon in the Denver Broncos. Denver ranks second in the AFC with an 8-2 mark but has been the most consistent team in the league since its week one flop against Miami.
When Denver Has the Ball
The Broncos like to run -- a lot. Establishing the run is priority one in all their games and will be again today. Much has been said throughout the year about Dallas' offensive conservatism but consider this Denver stat: the Broncos have thrown more than they have run only twice this year. That was in the first two games of the season.
The Broncos will run it as much as you let them. If they get ahead and can maintain the lead they won't let up. In several games this year their run-pass ratio has been 2:1.
The lead the NFL in rushing yardage per game, averaging over 168.
Their stellar rushing has made QB Jake Plummer's job one of the easiest in the game. He's playing like Bob Griese did for the early '70s Dolphins, throwing just 16 to 18 times in many of the Broncos wins. Plummer and Broncos HC Mike Shanahan have been able to pass on their terms this year and this has made Plummer the most error-free QB in the league; he has not thrown an interception since week two.
The staple of the Broncos running game is their stretch play. You often hear it referred to as their "zone blocking" scheme, as if they were the only team in the NFL to incorporate it. In fact, many teams use the zone scheme, but few execute it as effectively as Denver.
Denver has some philosophical differences from the other zone blocking teams. They prefer smaller, more mobile linemen who can run. Watch the Broncos at the snap and you'll see five linemen running quickly and laterally. They want to reach outside the linemen they are blocking and hook them inside. If the opposing linemen runs too hard to get to the outside, the linemen will help them, pushing them even harder to create a hole. On the backside the Denver linemen take advantage of a league rule allowing an offensive lineman to hit an opponent in the back of the leg. All teams do this to some extent, but no team bends the rule to its limit as much as the Broncos.
The idea is to get the defensive line moving laterally and hope that at least one of the offensive lineman can hook his man. If it happens on the perimeter the Denver back will go outside. If a lineman creates a seam on the backside, the runner will cut back in that direction. Once the defenders on the backside of plays become overly concerned with pursuit and shutting down cutback lanes, Denver will run the mobile Plummer on bootlegs. Once the backside ends and linebackers temper their pursuit of runs to wait on Plummer's rollouts, the cutback lanes reappear. This is the vicious cycle the Broncos create for opposing front sevens.
Defending the Broncos running game requires discipline, athleticism, power and depth. Dallas has the power and depth, with a six man defensive line rotation that is young and strong. Don't be surprised if Dallas activates an extra lineman today to keep the rotation turning should somebody get injured. The play of the Dallas inside linebackers has improved dramatically since Bradie James became confortable with the mental aspects of the pro game around week six.
The biggest concern for Dallas will be the play of the outside linebackers Demarcus Ware and Scott Fujita. Ware seems to have hit a wall in his rookie campaign, as his play has regressed since the bye. Fujita has a maddening tendency to play hot and cold. Both players were awful in containment against the Eagles. Donovan McNabb ran several bootlegs successfully to Fujita's side, forcing the Dallas coaches to insert rookie Kevin Burnett midway through the game.
Ware's problems this year have come on containment against outside runs. Early in the year, he was allowing tackles and tight ends to hook him inside. He got better in the middle of the season but has shown some of his old bad habits the last two games. He improved in the Detroit game, as did Fujita, but if these two don't improve their recognition and technique the Broncos will take yards in huge chunks against them.
One possible antidote to the OLBs troubles is moving Roy Williams up to the line of scrimmage. If he has weakside responsiblilty and is sent on run blitzes, the backside linebackers can concentrate more on taking Plummers rollouts away. And taking his option passes away is a huge part of beating Denver. Only one team has been able to shut Denver's run down in their last nine games. That was San Diego, back in September. The three teams that have forced the Broncos to struggle, the Chargers, Redskins and Giants, all contained Plummer. They harrassed his rollouts and forced him to operate from the pocket, where he is not as effective.
If Anthony Henry is healthy, look for Dallas to press Denver's receivers and bring controlled heat on Plummer. When Denver does throw, keeping veteran WR Rod Smith under control is key. Smith is Plummer's primary target. He has 52 receptions, roughly 40% more than the next Denver wideout, speedster Ashley Lelie. The Cowboys had a lot of trouble defending the deep ball early in the year, but have allowed just one reception of over 40 yards since Randy Moss ripped them for a 70 yarder in week four. That came in the Cardinals win, when Anquan Boldin outfought Henry for a touchdown. Denver is not a deep passing team, though they will take a couple of chances to Lelie. Keeping Plummer inside the hash marks and marking Smith tighly are essential to keeping Denver's aerial game under control.
When Dallas Has the Ball:
Denver took a lot of abuse when it raided the lowly Cleveland Browns for much of its defense line this offseason. Gerard Warren, Courtney Brown, Ebenezer Ekuban and Michael Myers, the latter two former Cowboys draftees, were considered washouts. Right now the Broncos are having the last laugh. They have conbined with Trevor Pryce and the rest of the Broncos front seven to produce the second best run defense in the league. There are several factors in this ranking. The first is that Denver has an athletic linebacking corps, led by MLB Al Wilson. OLBs Ian Gold and D.J. Williams can fly to the ball. Denver also has the old headhunter John Lynch playing strong safety. He's lost a step from his Tampa Bay days, but he's still one of the smarter players around and will nail you if he gets close to you. The second factor is that Denver's opponents often abandon the run, because they are playing catchup.
This second point suggests that the coin toss will be one of the most important factors of the game. Denver is a fast starting team and has scored first on every opponent except Miami. Getting ahead of the Broncos, or keeping pace with them will determine the contour of the game. For this reason, don't be surprised if Dallas starts the game winging it down the field. A replay of the home Philadelphia game, where Dallas attacked the Eagles corners with Terry Glenn, may be coming.
Denver's secondary is the weakness of their defense. It's not terrible, but it ranks 28th in the league. One reason, as I have pointed out, is that Denver's opponents are often playing from behind. However, the Denver back four has shown difficulty in stopping good passing games when it knows the pass is coming. It's win over the Eagles is a case in point. Denver raced to a 28-0 lead but watched Philly roar back once Donovan McNabb warmed up. The Eagles cut the lead to 28-21 and were driving for the tying score when McNabb threw an interception in the Broncos end zone.
The remarkable, or perhaps not so remarkable part of the Eagles comback is that they torched CB Champ Bailey in the process. Terrell Owens schooled him on a 90 yard catch and run and later beat him for a 58 yard reception. Bailey is one of the most overrated players in the league. Football passing analyst K.C. Joyner noted that in '04 Bailey's performance put him in the bottom half of corners, as he was one of the most beaten on deep balls. Yet he was voted to the Pro Bowl. TV announcers talk about his believed covererage skills so reflexively that his name has morphed from "Champ Bailey" to "Shutdowncorner Champ Bailey."
Bailey is having another difficult year, as he has played with a separated shoulder and a strained hamstring. Denver coaches blamed the bad hammy for Owens' big catches. He's listed as questionable because of the leg injury. If he takes the field and is matched up man-to- man on Terry Glenn, expect Sean Payton to target him frequently.
Also expect Dallas to take more shots to slot receiver Peerless Price out of the three WR set. Price's production has not risen to the standard Patrick Crayton set before his injury. Price has been improving however. He caught a 58 yard bomb against the Eagles and was open deep agaist the Lions, but was missed by Bledsoe. The Cowboys have been running a lot of three man routes, keeping a back and tight end in to help tackles Torrin Tucker and Rob Petitti. Denver plays a pressure scheme, so look for more of the same, especially since the deep matchups, especially Glenn's and Price's, favor Dallas.
If Dallas does get a lead, look for them to then try and hammer Marion Barber and Julius Jones at the Broncos front. Dallas has been stubborn in its attempts to get the run going and has had its two best running games of the year in its last two home games. A key has been the improved play of C Al Johnson and RG Marco Rivera, who have made Dallas the most right handed running team they've been since the early '90s, when Erik Williams was healthy.
The game will turn on the first quarter. Denver will run the ball effectively. The Cowboys outside linebackers have been suspect lately and this makes me question how well the Dallas front can contain the Broncos' runners. If the Broncos get an early 10 or 14 point lead, it will be a gloomy afternoon.
If, on the other hand, Dallas can hit Denver with some early passes, they can dictate the pace of the game. Dallas will get yards through the air. The question is whether they do it early, in the process of getting the lead, or late, in the process of trying to catch up.
The bigger question marks are on the Cowboys' side. Drew Bledsoe struggled with his accuracy last week, and this has to be a concern with a short preparation week. I'm pulling for Dallas with both hands, but my head tells me to go with consistency.
Denver 20, Dallas 17