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Mile High Mirror Image: Cowboys vs. Broncos Preview

Last week the Cowboys played a Panthers team that mirrored them in terms of foibles and wildness. The Cowboys played a more controlled game than their rivals and snagged a late win. 

This week, Dallas plays a team that mirrors it schematically.  New head coach Josh McDaniels and defensive coordinator Mike Nolan are running offensive and defensive game plans that will give you a sense of deja vu; they're very similar to the ones Wade Phillips and Jason Garrett have been using so far this young season. 

Which duo will out-copy the other?  Look below the fold for my game profile.

When Denver Has the Ball

McDaniels ran the closest thing to a college spread offense while coordinating New England's scheme.  His base package used a big number one flanker, Randy Moss, outside of tight end Ben Watson on one side.  Opposite Moss, he placed a speedy split end, played in series by Jabar Gaffney, Donte Stallworth and Joey GallowayWes Welker lined up in the slot.

The scheme is based on creating space for Moss and Welker.  The split end runs a lot of deep route, to occupy the safety on that side of the field.  Watson is a speed tight end who can work the seams and occupy the strong safety on that side.  When the scheme is working, the top targets, Moss and Welker, are very hard to double.

McDaniels' scheme, when operating properly, is a pass-first, run-second scheme.  He deployed Tom Brady and Matt Cassell in the shotgun nearly 70% of the time. He relied on a line which could pass block without much assistance from backs and tight ends.

McDaniels has the personnel to install this package in Denver.  Brandon Marshall can play the Moss role.  Last year's rookie find Eddie Royal looks like a younger, faster version of Welker.  Gaffney was brought in to play the split end role he first held in New England.  McDaniels also inherited the best pass blocking offensive line in football last year.  He wisely kept OL coach Rick Dennison, whose young group, led by tackles Ryan Clady and Ryan Harris, gave up just twelve sacks in '08. 

So what have we seen from McDaniels in Denver thus far?  Lots of short and intermediate darts to Marshall and Royal from new QB Kyle Orton?  Lots of bubble screens to Royal?  (Nobody runs receiver screens more or better than McDaniels' teams.)


Denver has retained Mike Shanahan's running attack and used it to control games.  Cowboys fans are pleased with the team's 470 yards rushing the past two weeks. Denver's guys have run for 399 yards in the same span -- 184 against Cleveland and 215 last week against Oakland.

Wade Phillips has ironed out many of the lane problems which left big running lanes open against Tampa Bay in the opener.  The Giants runners were held under 90 yards and last week Carolina's potent running back duo couldn't top 70 yards.

This week, the front seven will have to brace for heavy doses of Knowshon Moreno and Correll Buckhalter.  Denver uses them in the same way Dallas uses Felix Jones and Marion Barber, rotating them regularly.  Their tactics will look familar.  They run more stretch plays than Dallas, since that was the foundational play of Shanahan's running attacks, but  you'll see lots of counters and tosses to the edges.

This will be tough to defend, because Denver's base three WR set will likely mean lots of nickel looks on first and second down from Dallas' defense.  The Cowboys corners have not tackled well thus far and if they're whiffing again, the Denver runners could get off to hot starts.

Watch for a play Denver ran a lot against Oakland, where McDaniels bunches his receivers two on one side and one receiver and a slightly split tight end on the other, and then runs toss plays behind the clustered receivers.  The Dallas corners must be willing to take hits in order to funnel these plays inside towards the pursuit.  Otherwise, Denver will be able to mount grinding drives.

Another key will be red-zone play.  The defense was good against the Giants and didn't allow a Panthers drive into the red zone last week.  Denver has big play receivers, but it does not throw deep much, because Orton lacks Jay Cutler's big arm.  They're a ball control offense.  They're also slow starters, who have only scored 26 first half points thus far.  They're concerned in Denver about the team's goal line and short-yardage zips.  A bend but don't break philosophy might prevail Sunday afternoon.  The Broncos have won their last two games in the fourth quarter, so if the Cowboys keep Denver in character, they can in turn take a lead and make the Broncos play catchup, something they've had to do just once all year.

When Dallas Has the Ball

Which poison will Mike Nolan choose?  And which will he attempt to administer to Dallas?  Nolan has coached 4-3 and 3-4 defenses at his many NFL stops, but prefers the 3-4.  He's made a quick overhaul of the Broncos defense that disappeared last December, when one win would have put Denver in the playoffs. 

The team used free agency to find nose tackles for its scheme and leaned even more on free agency to rebuild a shattered secondary.  Two former Dolphins, CB Renaldo Hill and S Andre Goodman joined former Eagle Brian Dawkins.  Those three have teamed with holdover Champ Bailey in a group which backs up the NFL's best scoring defense.  The Broncos have allowed just one touchdown in wins over the Bengals, Browns and Raiders.

The question is which half of Dallas' attack Nolan will attempt to take away.  He's been more of a control scheme type of coach, who blitzes sparingly and swarms his defenders to the football.  Coincidentally, this has been the approach Dallas' last two opponents have taken.  After Tony Romo burned the Bucs pressure scheme, the Giants and Panthers played a lot of deep coverage to deny the deep pass.  New York frequently played FS Kenny Phillips in centerfield, 25 yards off the ball.  The Panthers DC Ron Meeks, a long-time coordinator of the Colts Tampa-2 scheme, played a lot of cover two and played 3-3 zone behind his blitzes last week.

Romo made the hoped-for mistakes against New York and gave the Giants their margin in their two point win.  Romo stayed patient last week and made his big throws in the last 20 minutes of the game, when Jason Garrett got Roy Williams into the holes in Meeks' zones.

By playing Romo-first defense, opponents have left themselves vulnerable to the run.  Dallas ripped New York for 251 and Carolina for over 220 yards last week.  McDaniels told the Denver press this week he was very concerned about Dallas' running attack, which could imply more eight man fronts and more chances for Romo to bomb away than he's seen since week one.

My hunch is that we'll see a third week of a Romo-first approach.  Felix Jones won't play.  He's been the explosive play guy, making runs over 50 and 40+ yards with regularity.  Tashard Choice and Marion Barber can run the same plays Jones does, but their big gains are more of the 14, 16, 18 yard variety. 

Nolan also has a hot rusher.  Elvis Dumervil was an undersized end in Shanahan's 4-3 and Nolan moved him to the Demarcus Ware spot in his 3-4.  Dumervil sacked QBs six times in the last two games.  Dallas will have to locate him and neutralize him to give Romo time.  If they can, they'll have a small edge.  No other Broncos rusher has more than one sack thus far.

Look for heavy throwing to Jason Witten early, while the OC tries to get a feel for Nolan's coverages and rushes.


This game will turn on which team runs better.  Dallas needs to tackle well and keep Denver in front of them. I think Denver will approach Dallas' offense in the same way.   Garrett and Romo won't get many shots against man coverage, but the game could turn on Garrett's ability to anticipate Broncos blitzes and on Romo's ability to hit receivers downfield when those blitzes come.

We're going to see similar teams with similar game plans.  It's all about execution folks. It usually is.