There are a lot of reasons why this game in Denver is one of the trendy upset picks across the league; Altitude. Noise. "Cowboys are over-rated". "Broncos are under-rated".
Whatever the reason, this is a game that most don't want to miss. A true chance for both teams to prove what they are made of.
So, how do the Cowboys get to 3-1? By following a recipe that seems to be the best way for them to win games this year - Staking claim to that line of scrimmage.
I think we should all consider the way the Cowboys have played at the point of attack as the biggest source of optimism (and the most under-reported story) for this season to be the year the Cowboys break that dreaded 4,660 day drought since their last playoff win. With the exception of the defensive front seven in Tampa - a game which they admit they got "too cute" on their run blitzes and needed to just play "straight up" defense until proven otherwise - the Cowboys have been nearly impossible to run on. Two of the very best running offenses in the NFL have had no success against the Cowboys in the last few weeks. So much so that Carolina pretty much abandoned the run in the 2nd half altogether. That says quite a bit given how Carolina does business.
And on offense? Well, on offense, the Cowboys are a solid run or two from 600 yards running already. That pace, through 3 games, is so off the charts silly that it certainly cannot be maintained. But it also indicates that the Cowboys ability to run the football should be a large concern for anyone on their upcoming schedule. It should also be a principle part of any and all game plans moving forward.
If you own the line of scrimmage, you win. If you protect your QB, run the football, stop the run, and get to their QB - then you are a Super Bowl candidate. And the Cowboys can do 3 out of those 4 pretty well. And the 4th objective resulted in 3 sacks this week which is a bit more like it.
Which brings us to Game #4 - against a team that loves to own the line on offense by running that football right at you. Denver also protects their QB and gives him time very, very well. Then on defense, they love feeding off their home crowd to get to your QB and plugging your run.
A firm road test indeed, where Vegas sees the Cowboys as a 3-point favorite. I think many see that line as a very tempting opportunity to take the home-standing Broncos who have yet to taste defeat under their new coach Josh McDaniels.
Let's examine how the Cowboys should get this game in the win column.
In the first game this season, the Cowboys hit on 4 monster pass plays. 80 yards to Patrick Crayton for a Touchdown, 66 yards to Roy Williams for a Touchdown, 44 yards to Crayton again, and 42 yards to Miles Austin for a Touchdown. An amazing aerial display.
In the two games since, teams have been very careful against the "big play". They have dropped safeties deep (Kenny Phillips, anyone?) and kept the pass plays in front of them. Against New York, the biggest pass play to a WR or TE was to Austin for 20 yards. Against the Panthers, it was Roy Williams for 26. And that has been about it.
The flip side is that the Cowboys have used this strategy against those defenses by gashing them with the run. At some point, and maybe it is Sunday, teams will then try to build their defense to stop the run and that is when Tony Romo must go back to making them pay through the air. I think this is the week.
1) - Stretch the Defense: I believe this is a week to get the WR corps going. I think part of that is to involve the speed threats like Austin back into the plan. There is a consequence to primary running personnel packages. When you go "22" personnel, then you have but 1 WR on the field (Crayton or Williams almost all the time). When you put Martellus and Deon Anderson out there, that minimizes the play of Miles Austin and Sam Hurd. Austin is a real threat on the edge that demands safety help on those deep routes. I think you go with what is working, but it is important to keep defenses honest.
2) - Account for Elvis and Dawkins: Two guys who can get to Tony Romo for two totally different reasons are Elvis Dumervil and Brian Dawkins. Dumervil, primarily coming from Mark Colombo's side has eaten up Right Tackles for lunch in the first 3 weeks. He dominated the Raiders and the Browns especially. Colombo has done a very good job this season (and for practically his entire Cowboys career) in pass protection, andthis will be another test against an undersized speed rusher with tremendous energy. He will fight for 4 Quarters, and he especially feeds off that home crowd. Dawkins, on the other hand, will only blitz a handful of times, but as we all know, he has a knack for picking the proper time and angle to give RBs fits in blitz pick-up. He leaps over a blocker to make a play, and Romo must account for #20 at every snap, because it only takes one ambush to turn a game.
3) - Grind them Down: When you do run the ball, run it with a physical attack. As is the case most weeks, the Cowboys enjoy a massive weight advantage over the Broncos front. They will try to counter that with aggressive flying-around-the-ball defense, but your bulldozer should beat their aggression over 60 minutes. Stay with it. Win first down. And make them sneak everyone up into the box to stop Marion Barber and Tashard Choice. This is not the week for cute. This is a week for brute strength. Oh, and on a play from the 1-yard line, let's line them up and stuff it in, ok, Jason?
4) - Stay Calm and Keep Composure: We all know that Romo and the offense seldom looks composed in the early going of a big road game. We all remember that even in the 13-3 year, this team could not get anything going in the 1st Quarter. We also know that when the Denver crowd wants to affect a game, they can. They have the "IN-Com-Plete" cheer that the stadium shouts in unison when they get a stop. Be calm, cool, and collected. This is a long game, and the Cowboys will have to handle some storms. In past years, this is a game where you might expect a ranting and raving WR on the sideline. But, the offense has been good for 430 yards a game. They can handle their objectives on Sunday.
Defense is a different story. They have played an offense three offenses so far where you know what they want to do on 1st and 10. In most cases, they want Tampa, NY, and Carolina all want to run the ball on 1st and 10 and you can plan your game around winning that down.
But, Josh McDaniels is a guy who has as many ideas in his offensive bag as anyone. On one hand, he is the same guy who designed the offense that the Patriots ran in 2007 and that Tom Brady threw for 50 Touchdowns. On the other hand, last week against the Raiders, the Broncos ran the ball 45 times and threw it just 23. That is an amazing ratio you don't see much in the NFL.
So, to suggest that we have any idea what they want to do on 1st and 10 is incorrect. They will have Bradie James and Ken Hamlin guessing early. And that is when they can be dangerous.
The Broncos have plenty of weapons, and they also give Kyle Orton the time to find them. So, with that in mind, let's discuss what Wade Phillips should be thinking entering this game.
1) - Get Pressure: I know this is the most obvious defensive objective every week, but I don't think we can stress it enough this week. The Broncos base their entire offense around pass protection, and with a LT like Ryan Clady, they can generally leave him out there by himself, and account for everyone else where necessary. This allows for a double team on Ratliff inside, and guess who is being counted on to bring the noise yet again? Anthony Spencer. It has been suggested that Spencer's biggest issue is that he wears down easily in the game, and by the 4th Quarter his tank is empty. I am not sure about this theory, but it certainly gives me pause when I see what Victor Butler did in his spot late, and also that this game is going to be at altitude which will wear players down even faster. The issues are easy: If you don't get pressure, that allows Brandon Marshall, Brandon Stokely, andEddie Royal to findmismatches in the secondary. They are good at doing this (great example: Marshall scored his touchdown last week witha LB trying to cover him in Oakland) and if they have time, the drag route to Stokley (provided his hamstring is right) will be a constant issue right across the face of your ILBs. Right out of the Wes Welker playbookin New England. Also, the flare out of the backfield to Buckhalter is a favorite.
2) - DeMarcus Ware: Having said everything I have said about Clady, you might think that this is not the week for Ware to get off. But, if Clady is the best tackle in football, then Ware should certainly be up for the challenge. September is gone. We are wondering if he is hurt. Let's see him put the first sack in Clady's 20 games on the board.
3) - Win 1st down: Again, from the obvious department, we must not allow Knowshon and Buckhalter to find space. The last few weeks, they have been able to find holes in the line that you could drive a truck through. The cut-blocking that made Denver famous is alive and well, and this always seems to make running the ball easier when D-Linemen are worried about their knees. The field slants downhill in Denver for Broncos backs - regardless their names - and if the Cowboys can frustrate the running attack, they will likely win this game.
4) - Tackle, Tackle, Tackle: That means you, Mike Jenkins. And you, Terrence Newman. And especially you, Ken Hamlin. When you get a chance to keep a big play from becoming a bigger play, it is essential that you get this done. The tackling in this secondary has been well below acceptable so far, and it falls to those DBs to wrap up and bring down.
Having studied what the Broncos do well, there is no question this will require all 3 phases of the Cowboys team to be on the right page. Turnovers will be crucial, and the margin for error will be minimal.
However, provided the Cowboys win the line of scrimmage, and Romo beats Orton, then the Cowboys should get a stiff road win. But, this game can turn on any of the 120 or so plays.
A true "proving ground" game. And one where I can talk myself into either team winning.
Dallas 23, Denver 21
Carolina Game Plan
Giants Game Plan
Tampa Bay Game Plan