The year was 1995. Forrest Gump won best picture, O.J. Simpson was dominating the news, and the Dallas Cowboys would go on to win the Super Bowl. That was a long time ago. The reason I know that is because Cowboys haters are very helpful in giving us regular reminders. They’re groovy like that. It’s true though, that’s a long time ago. Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott weren’t even born yet. It also happens to be the last time the Cowboys beat the Denver Broncos.
While fans may not have much of a recollect of that game, we all remember very well what happened the last time these two teams faced off in 2013. Tony Romo would pass for over 500 yards and throw five touchdowns. Unfortunately, the Cowboys would still end up on the losing end of a 51-48 shootout.
A lot has changed since then. Both quarterbacks from this game have retired. Romo is a broadcaster now and Peyton Manning is terrorizing people in Nationwide commercials. I bet you have that jingle in your head now, don’t you? You’re welcome.
The Broncos have gone from an offensive powerhouse with a murky defense to the exact opposite now. The Cowboys have also improved their defense and now have an offense led by two second-year players, Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott. So what will things be like in this matchup? Here are five things to keep an eye out for when these teams face off on Sunday.
Before we get started, let’s take a moment to honor a true great. DeMarcus Ware spent nine of his 12 years with the Cowboys and finished up his career by helping the Broncos win a Super Bowl. He would leave the game 138.5 sacks.
Ware will be honored on Sunday.
DeMarcus Ware asked who he's rooting for Sunday. Says he will be on the 50 yard line, in blue with a large D on the front...(smart answer)— Jane Slater (@SlaterNFL) September 13, 2017
Okay, now on to the game.
1. What kind of run defense will we see from the Broncos?
For all the good things we hear about the Broncos defense, one thing they’ve struggled with is stopping the run. Last year, they were 28th in the league in rushing defense, averaging 130 yards per game. But on Monday night against the Chargers they only allowed 64 yards. Has the Broncos run defense improved this season? Broncos head coach, Vance Joseph explains the key to their success:
"When you try to stop the run game, it's really about gap integrity," Joseph said Wednesday. "I thought our front seven and our secondary Monday night had great gap integrity outside of two runs."
The Broncos defenders did a good job filling the gaps, making it difficult for Chargers running back Melvin Gordon to find space to run in. San Diego’s offensive line isn’t as effective as the Cowboys at opening up the running lanes and they will present a challenge for Denver, especially when you have a running back with Ezekiel Elliott’s vision. Joseph continues:
"You can't be gapped out pre-snap because Zeke will find it," Joseph said. "He's a great daylight runner so if there's any space in there, he will find it."
The Cowboys led the league last year in rushing attempts, averaging 31 runs per game. On Sunday night, Dallas was right on cue with 31 rushes against the New York Giants. Make no mistake about it, the Broncos defense will see a heavy dose of the run game. The Cowboys play very physical in the trenches and it’s going to be a daunting task keeping Elliott in check.
Prediction: Like the Giants game, it will be a grind, but Zeke will break off a couple good runs. His longest run won’t be only 10 yards like it was last week. Expect another 100-yard effort from Elliott.
2. Can Tank strike again?
The Giants right tackle, Bobby Hart, was a big liability on the edge and DeMarcus Lawrence took full advantage. Tank had one of the better games of his career, collecting two sacks as well as tackling the RB in the backfield for a loss.
This week against the Broncos, Tank will have another appealing matchup when he lines up against Menelik Watson. Denver signed Watson in free agency this offseason after an unimpressive tenure in Oakland. Watson looks very similar to Byron Bell (of course a big body wearing #75 might have something to do with that). He’s not very quick and struggles with his balance.
Menelik Watson, on the other hand, ranked 59th of the 61 tackles playing 25% of snaps or more with 6 total pressures allowed, inc. 4 sacks.— Sayre Bedinger (@SayreBedinger) September 12, 2017
Look for Lawrence to try to take advantage of another weak blocker on the edge. It wouldn’t shock me to see another two-sack performance. This could be a great start for a player who will be a free agent after the season (Cha-ching $$).
3. Same game from Dez, but with different results
Janoris Jenkins did a great job on Dez Bryant in the season-opener limiting the Cowboys All Pro receiver to two catches for 43 yards. As unimpressive as it was in the box score, Bryant actually was real close to changing the whole narrative on who dominated who. There were a handful of plays that very easily could have turned out favorable for Dez.
Bryant will now go from one strong corner to another as he draws the 10-year veteran Aqib Talib. The back-and-forth jawing between Dez and Talib should be very much like last week with Jenkins as these two should exchange battles with each of them taking turns winning. Dak Prescott targeted Bryant nine times last week so the Cowboys are committed to looking his way. If the attempts are similar to last week, there’s a good chance Bryant cashes in on some of those “missed opportunities.”
Fantasy advice: If Dez has another poor statistical game, it could be a good time to buy low from a frustrated fantasy owner. He also draws Patrick Peterson next week, so you might even want to wait it out until after Week 3. Pay close attention to his targets. If Dak keeps looking his way, that’s going to be a good sign that Dez could have a big year. He’s not going to be held in check all year and could start taking off after this rough patch of corners.
4. Make Sexy T-Rexy extinct
Von Miller is the type of player than can take over a game. He’s so disruptive off the edge and if teams don’t have him defended properly, they could find themselves in big trouble. Tyron Smith and La’ell Collins are two tackles who could be up for the task. It was fun watching Collins, who is in his first year as the Cowboys starting right tackle, battle it out with Jason Pierre-Paul. The Giants edge rusher is one of the better players in the league and Collins held his own against him. They took turns winning plays in the trenches - sometimes JPP won, other times Collins won. But ultimately, it was a big win for Dallas because Pierre-Paul was unable to be disruptive enough to help his defense.
Things might be a little more challenging with Miller. During the preseason, the Oakland Raiders Khalil Mack made things difficult for Collins. Mack got the better of him on a couple plays and also caused Collins to commit some costly penalties. Collins will have his hands full, but hopefully it won’t be full of face mask.
I really hope he doesn’t get a sack. Not only would it hurt the Cowboys, but nobody should be subjected to this sack celebration dance, the Sexy T-Rex.
Note: Like the Cowboys, the Oakland Raiders have a good offensive line. Last season in two games against the Raiders, Miller only had one sack and five tackles.
5. Jourdan Lewis debut
The Cowboys will have to face the Broncos receiving tandem of Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders without their best corner, Orlando Scandrick. And when you consider that Brandon Carr and Morris Claiborne aren’t on the team anymore, that would seem like a cause for concern for the Cowboys defense.
But it’s not.
Anthony Brown and Nolan Carroll both played well last week. As did rookie Chidobe Awuzie who saw a lot of action after Scandrick left the game with a wrist injury. The learning curve is a steep on for corners so to be able to step in right away and contribute is a huge plus for the team. It was a great start to young defender’s career.
Top graded rookie CBs from week 1 pic.twitter.com/kDRck8yPVp— Pro Football Focus (@PFF) September 12, 2017
And now, another rookie corner will be set to make his NFL debut when third-round pick Jourdan Lewis takes the field after being a full participant in practice this week. How much will Lewis contribute and will the Cowboys new look secondary be able to continue their success?
In Bob Sturm’s Marinelli Report, he provides Eli Manning’s throwing chart against the Cowboys.
The Cowboys conceded the short game against the Giants and relied on good tackling. This led to a lot of short drives. Broncos quarterback Trevor Siemian struggles with his accuracy deep and will look for more short passes to move the chains so expect more of the same. But Denver will have to take some shots down field and how the Cowboys secondary hold up will have a lot of influence over the outcome of this game.
What will you be looking for in this game?