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Upon Further Review: Broncos at Cowboys

Posted Oct 8, 2013

Independent analyst Andrew Mason takes his weekly look back at the game film.

DENVER -- It took 48 hours for a game that dizzying to settle in. And while the Broncos' 51-48 win over the Cowboys was a thriller for the ages, from the Broncos' perspective it was one defined by a defense that reached its breaking point and then snapped.

DEFENSE: AGAINST THE PASS, A DAY TO FORGET

The personnel hits the Broncos absorbed Sunday cannot be overlooked; by the end of the game, they were without Von Miller, Champ Bailey, Wesley Woodyard, Chris Harris and Robert Ayers, and it showed. Remarkably, the Cowboys did not try to exploit the Harris and Ayers injuries by giving running back DeMarco Murray more work; his last carry came with 2:39 left in the third quarter.

As a result, the Broncos could focus all of their energies on rushing the passer and dropping their back seven into coverage. Occasionally they would mix this up, but not in the name of setting up anything against the run; this was the case on the crucial Shaun Phillips sack on the next-to-last Cowboys offensive snap, when Omar Bolden blitzed, providing a fifth pass rusher. He was picked up, but Adrian Robinson provided enough of a distraction coming wide around Romo's right flank that he stepped up -- and into Phillips' grasp for the crucial sack.

One snap later, the Broncos flipped the script; instead of bringing an extra pass rusher on the blitz, they dropped eight into coverage, only rushing Romo with the three down linemen on the play (Phillips, Robinson and Derek Wolfe).  Danny Trevathan was the only linebacker; the Broncos had seven defensive backs in on the play.

Denver had not succeeded in getting much quick pass rush with only four defensive linemen for much of the game -- as John Fox noted with a sense of exasperation, "on one of our pass rushes, (Romo) was standing back there for 10 seconds." It wasn't the only time; in the first half, Romo had more than five seconds to throw on five occasions -- although on two of them, he was pressured 2.33 and 3.71 seconds after the snap, respectively, so the time to throw came from eluding pressure.

But on the most crucial play of the game, Wolfe succeeded at winning his one-on-one matchup and forcing a Romo throw 2.73 seconds after the snap -- nearly 0.5 seconds faster than his average time to throw Sunday (3.21 seconds). This is the kind of play Wolfe has made consistently even though his sack total has been less than he'd want (one through five games); he remains second on the team in quarterback hurries, according to ProFootballFocus.com, with 12 this season. (I also give Wolfe credit for 12 hurries this year, but that is such a subjective statistic that it lends itself to wild variance at times.)

While time for Romo to throw was a problem, missed tackles were not as frequent an issue; the Broncos only missed four stops -- one each by Danny Trevathan, Tony Carter, Duke Ihenacho and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie. The latter two would have required particularly athletic plays to make the stops. Overall, the Broncos allowed 56 additional yards as a result of the missed tackles.

The Broncos also had a legitimate chance at two more sacks -- one by Malik Jackson and another by Terrance Knighton -- before Romo spun away. Jackson finished with one sack, when he got to Romo in 2.62 seconds; on the one he missed, he came up short 6.45 seconds after the snap. (This was the 10-second play to which Fox referred.)

Getting Miller back after one more game will help the Broncos reduce the time they need to get to the quarterback. It's highly unlikely that Romo would have been nearly as effective with the threat of Miller looming from one side, especially with Phillips lurking on the other. Whether it's Ayers or Phillips who works opposite Miller, the Broncos' pass rush might be dangerous by Week 7.

OFFENSE: SPREADING THE WEALTH -- AND THE MISERY

It's not just that Peyton Manning distributes the football well among his top four targets -- Demaryius Thomas, Wes Welker, Eric Decker and Julius Thomas. It's that he attacks the defense with just as much balance.

The Cowboys played three cornerbacks for most of the game, and none of them could breathe easy, as Manning went at Brandon Carr seven times, Morris Claiborne six times, and Orlando Scandrick five times. Each one of them allowed a touchdown, and the only one who could claim a partial victory was Claiborne, thanks to his third-quarter interception.

Manning also didn't overly emphasize one flank; he threw six times to his right and eight to his left, with the rest down the middle. No one keeps a defense guessing like No. 18, and his ability to confound by spreading the ball in so many directions makes this offense a treat to watch.

Broncos fans, savor this. It's like getting to sit with the Viennese court in the 18th century and watch Mozart conduct "The Marriage of Figaro" live. This is an art form at its zenith.

NOTES:

-- The Broncos allowed 236 yards after the catch Sunday, an average of 9.44 yards after the catch per reception. Dallas has averaged 5.41 yards in that metric, according to STATS, Inc., which measures that the league average this year is 5.50 yards after the catch per reception. (Denver is fourth in the league with 6.41 yards after the catch per reception.)

-- Among wide receivers with at least 20 receptions this year, no one has caught a higher percentage of passes targeted his way than Demaryius Thomas, who has caught 34 of 44 passes (77.27 percent) thrown in his direction.

-- The run defense showed that its performance against the Eagles was an aberration: the Broncos missed no tackles on Murray and held him to just 3.6 yards per carry.

-- Robert Ayers' injury came when he did what he does best: close a run from the backside. Murray was held up by Mitch Unrein, who quickly worked free of his blocker just enough to obstruct a hole. This allowed Ayers to tackle Murray from the back side. Ayers is the Broncos' third-highest rated run defender according to ProFootballFocus.com ( 2.8); his direct replacement of Elvis Dumervil (-3.9 against the run in 2012, per ProFootballFocus.com) is one of the major reasons why the Broncos' run defense has been so stout.

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