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Three Keys Unlocked: Broncos at Cowboys

Posted Oct 6, 2013

Independent analyst Andrew Mason examines how his three keys to the game played out in the Broncos' 51-48 win over the Cowboys.

ARLINGTON, Texas -- Remember when the Broncos had gone nearly a half-century without scoring at least 50 points? Now they've done it in back-to-back games.

That's not to say the half-century milestone is in any way easy. It's anything but, especially in a situation like Denver faced Sunday against the Cowboys at AT&T Stadium, when a defense battered by the suspension of its star pass rusher and injuries to four other starters was finally pushed to its tipping point.

That's why Peyton Manning had to take the step of reminding Knowshon Moreno in the final two minutes that scoring was good, but getting to the Dallas 1-yard-line and no farther was better. The defense's tank had emptied. Just one play after Julius Thomas had gone out of bounds -- which could have been a costly error that gave the Cowboys more than enough time for a reply -- Moreno made up for it, and the scoring for both teams was mercifully capped at 99.

1. PREVENT ADVANCEMENT TO THE SECOND LEVEL.

This was in regards to Dallas running back DeMarco Murray, and the Broncos did this for the most part, holding him to 3.6 yards per carry and no runs longer than the 13-yarder he logged on the second play of the second quarter.

But the Cowboys abandoned the run entirely for long stretches of the game. They ran on 10 of their first 24 plays -- which included three scoring drives that put them in front 17-7 -- and just four of their last 30. After the 2:39 mark of the third quarter, they didn't run the football at all.

By the end of the game, the Broncos were dropping seven or eight men into coverage, knowing that Dallas would not use the run as a change-of-pace threat. What made the Cowboys' decision particularly baffling was that the Broncos played the second half without Robert Ayers and Wesley Woodyard, two of the most crucial components in line-of-scrimmage and second-level run defending, respectively.

Once again, the Broncos faced an opponent that was one-dimensional by the end of the game. And just like against the Ravens and Giants, that allowed them to play back and set up a takeaway – although none in those games were in the same galaxy of importance as Trevathan’s interception Sunday.

2. KEEP THE QB UPRIGHT.

Manning was never sacked and only hit when George Selvie grabbed his facemask, drawing a 9-yard, half-the-distance-to-the-goal-line penalty. But the Cowboys never mustered a consistent pass rush, and rarely put Manning into any state of discomfort.

An injury to defensive end DeMarcus Ware didn't help the Cowboys' chances of mounting any pressure, but the Cowboys weren't getting to Manning to begin with.

3. DON'T FORCE IT.

Once again, Manning mainly took what was there. Dallas didn't want to get beat deep but also wanted to keep Wes Welker out of rhythm, which set Julius Thomas free in the space between. Thomas was targeted 12 times, marking the first time that Manning threw in his direction more often than anyone else -- and as many times as Welker and Demaryius Thomas were targeted combined.

Meanwhile, Tony Romo did the opposite when the outcome was in the balance. He'd had no trouble finding the open receiver for most of a day in which he passed for more yardage than anyone has ever amassed against the Broncos. But when he went back to pass with 2:04 remaining, he turned skittish -- perhaps because of the pressure that resulted in a sack one snap earlier, or maybe because of the moment. Either way, the result was a hurried, forced throw that Danny Trevathan read perfectly for the play that ultimately decided the game.

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