ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — The ‘champs’ roll into Denver on Sunday. The regular-season, NFC champs, that is.
The NFL Schedule makers did the Denver Broncos no favors to start the year. After playing in the last game of Week 1 on Monday night, the Broncos had a quick turnaround only to welcome in last season’s 13-3 Dallas Cowboys on Sunday.
Both teams enter Week 2 1-0, coming off primetime divisional wins at home.
In “America’s Game of the Week” on Fox, two of “America’s” teams square off in a 2:25 kickoff that is projected to go down to the wire. Here’s what you need to know.
The vaunted “No Fly Zone” has led the league in pass defense the past two seasons. Although they released safety T.J. Ward less than a month ago, replacement Justin Simmons played solid in Week 1.
With Chris Harris Jr., Aqib Talib, Bradley Roby and Darian Stewart all expected to play in the secondary, not to mention Von Miller rushing the passer, defending the pass is without a doubt Denver’s greatest strength.
The best offensive line in the game paired with the one of the best running backs makes this an easy choice. With Ezekiel Elliot as the ball carrier, the Cowboys rushed for 5.1 yards per carry last year and finished Week 1 with 129 as a team against the New York Giants.
In Week 1, Denver’s offensive line showed it was still suspect in protecting the quarterback. Trevor Siemian was sacked four times and had to scramble often to avoid pressure mainly given up on the outside, but also inside at times. Even Vance Joseph said, “The pass protection was not that good.”
Unlike Denver, the Cowboys don’t have a glaring hole on their team, giving credence to why they were a 13-3 team last year. However, with injuries to cornerback Orlando Scandrick, Dallas will turn to two rookie cornerbacks—Colorado’s Chidobe Awuzie and Jourdan Lewis. While both are talented rookies, their inexperience could be exposed by Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders.
While Denver will want to run the ball to control the flow of the game, they may find the most success through the air.
Cowboys’ offensive line v. Broncos’ defensive front seven
Last season the Cowboys had three of the five first-team All-Pro offensive linemen, a mind-blowing feat for one line. The all-star line had the second-most rushing yards last year while giving up the eighth-fewest sacks. In Week 1, against one of the league’s best defensive lines, Dallas rushed for 129 yards and only gave up one sack.
In Denver’s first game against the Los Angles Chargers, the Broncos’ front seven looked lightyears better against the run than they did last year. With key performances from Adam Gotsis, Shelby Harris and Shaq Barrett, Denver held the Chargers to under 2.9 yards per carry.
Dallas will want to impose their will in the run game, and if Denver can hold them from running freely, it will force Dak Prescott to throw the ball against the “No Fly Zone,” which Denver would welcome. If, however, the Broncos cannot stop the run, the Cowboys will control the game, time of possession and wear out Denver’s defense.
Cowboys’ linebackers v. Broncos’ running backs
For the Broncos to succeed in the game they will need to move the chains and keep their offense on the field. A key part to this will be successfully running the ball in key situations and utilizing the backs out of the backfield as receivers against Dallas’ Cover 2 defense.
With C.J. Anderson and Jamaal Charles, the Broncos have the talent to run the ball effectively, but Dallas’ linebacking core is stout, led by Sean Lee and Jaylon Smith.
Against Dallas’ stellar offensive line, Denver will need the best from their best, and highest paid, defensive lineman Wolfe. Wolfe suffered an ankle sprain in the middle of training camp and missed the team’s final three preseason games. In Week 1, Wolfe played, but admitted he wasn’t in full game shape yet and his play on the field reflected that at times.
Even with excellent performances from other role players on the defensive line in Week 1, Denver will need a big-time game from Wolfe in order to stop Dallas’ running game.
The “bell cow” of Denver’s running game, as Joseph said earlier in the week, the Broncos will rely on Anderson to keep the chains moving. Denver had the third-most three-and-outs last year and can’t afford that against the Cowboys. Against the Chargers, Denver went 8-for-15 on third-down, but most of that was on Siemian’s shoulders.
If the Broncos can control the time of possession through the running game, it will move the chains and allow their defense to stay fresh. Anderson had 20 carries for 81 yards against Los Angeles, and he may be called on even more on Sunday.
The Cowboys have another “Demarcus” rushing the passer, and like DeMarcus Ware throughout his career, Lawrence had no problem getting to Eli Manning in Week 1. Lawrence was responsible for two of the three sacks on Manning and was a major reason why the Giants’ passing game could never find a rhythm.
Denver’s tackles struggled in pass protection against the Chargers, specifically Menelik Watson, and if Lawrence plays the way he did last week on Sunday, Siemian could be uncomfortable in the pocket all game long.
While converting and stopping third down is always important in a game, it is even more important for the Broncos in Week 2. The Cowboys led the league in time of possession last year and if Denver finds themselves on the wrong end of that this week, it will not only keep their offense on the sidelines, it will wear down their defense.
The Broncos were fantastic on third-down last week going 8-of-15 on offense and holding the Chargers to 3-of-12 on defense. Similar numbers this week would have the Broncos sitting pretty.
Last year, when the Cowboys rushed for over 108 yards, they were 12-0 in the regular season. They were 1-3 when they rushed for 108 yards or less. It’ll be no easy task for the Broncos to hold them under that number as they averaged 149.8 yards per game last year and had 129 in Week 1.
Last year when Denver scored 21 points or more they were 8-1, with their sole loss to the Kansas City Chiefs in overtime in which they gave up 24 points in regulation. Last week, Denver won 24-21.
What to keep an eye out for
De’Angelo Henderson and Isaiah McKenzie
Two of the Broncos’ biggest offensive weapons didn’t see the field in Week 1 simply because the team “just didn’t get to it,” according to Joseph. Henderson and McKenzie both provide the element of speed and like special teams coordinator Brock Olivo said, “There’s nothing like speed.”
The coaching staff has said there are specialty offensive packages that will involve Henderson and McKenzie and while they didn’t use them in Week 1—and they didn’t need to—Sanders may have tipped a bit of the game plan for Sunday.
“We have some plays for [McKenzie] this week as an offense,” he said with a grin. “We’ll see what he can do with it. I want to see him score.”
No. 51 flat out balled against the run in Week 1, so much so he earned the “I Balled Award” from Denver’s coaching staff after the game—a new award given “for guys who put up a nice effort on tape,” according to the head coach.
The middle linebacker next to Brandon Marshall also received the highest grade defending the run of anyone on the team, according to Pro Football Focus. Denver’s defense would greatly benefit from a similar game again on Sunday to help the defensive line stop Elliot and Prescott on the ground.
Denver’s defense shut down Philip Rivers passing attack until the fourth-quarter by eliminating the threat of a tight end. The Chargers have, or at least had, one of the best tight end duos entering 2017 with Antonio Gates and Hunter Henry. The Broncos held them to a combined two receptions for 17 yards.
With Talib and Harris Jr. on the outside, opposing quarterbacks will be tempted to look over the middle in the passing game. Witten, much like Gates, is an future Hall of Fame tight end that is still capable of gashing opposing defenses. If Witten is able to find success, it will put less of a burden on Prescott to throw against the “No Fly Zone.”
However, if the Broncos can control him, like they did with Gates, Prescott will have to test the best secondary in the league. Broncos’ defensive coordinator Joe Woods called Gates and Witten “Very similar” players, which could benefit Denver on their short week.
“Those older veteran tight ends are very crafty. They know how to run routes. They know how to get open at the top of routes,” he said. “We’ll just make sure we really study his route tree and make sure we’re ready to deal with him.”
On Friday morning, the Broncos placed starting defensive end Jared Crick on the injured reserve, potentially ending his season, but absolutely counting him out against the Cowboys. Crick will undergo surgery to fix a “disk in his back,” according to Joseph and could return later in the season.
The Broncos signed defensive lineman Ahtyba Rubin in a corresponding move. Joseph said he will get up to speed with the defense “pretty quick” and it’s “very possible” he could play on Sunday.
Outside of that, the injury report is encouraging for the Broncos. Ron Leary “has a couple more things to pass” in the concussion protocol before he can play on Sunday, but took steps forward throughout the week that point in a positive direction.
Darian Stewart “looks good,” according to Joseph. The key for him will be to not have a set back in the recovery of his groin that he injured on Monday night.
The Westgate Superbook projects a close game decided by less than a field goal between the two 1-0 teams, but gives a slight favor to the Cowboys, even with the home field advantage that Denver has.
“Home field advantage here is a big deal. Our fans were on fire. It was really loud in that stadium Monday night,” Joseph said. “If you’re an offensive football team that’s operating from the LOS (line of scrimmage), it definitely affects you. You guys can’t hear; the snap counts are affected. The crowd noise makes a difference.”
According to Vegas, this matchup will be a low scoring one as it’s the fifth-lowest over/under on the 16 game weekend. With the Cowboys eating up time on the clock through running the ball, it leaves less time for either team to put points on the board.