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Breaking Down the Cowboys D

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- The Cowboys and Broncos share plenty of common threads historically: Dan Reeves, Craig Morton, Wade Phillips and Hall of Famer Tony Dorsett -- and home cities that spawned top-rated 1980's prime-time soap operas -- help tie together two proud football traditions.

This year, the tie that binds isn't related to personnel or civic culture, but in the teams' ability to overcome the extended absences of key defenders. The Broncos have coped with the losses of Von Miller and Champ Bailey; the Cowboys have lived without Anthony Spencer, who had a career-high 11 sacks last year but is now assured of missing the rest of 2013 after undergoing microfracture surgery on his knee this week.

But the Cowboys' pass rush has actually been better, which is not an indictment on Spencer.

Rather, it's because George Selvie has emerged as a capable replacement opposite DeMarcus Ware in the Cowboys' newly-minted 4-3 defense, which long-time defensive guru Monte Kiffin installed upon his return to the NFL following four years in the college ranks coordinating defenses under his son, recently fired USC coach Lane Kiffin.

Kiffin, who helped guide the Buccaneers to a world title 11 years ago, put some of his old Tampa Bay coaching band back together; his defensive line coach, Rod Marinelli, worked for the Buccaneers before becoming Detroit's head coach, where he had current Broncos offensive coordinator Adam Gase on his staff.

"This will probably be our biggest challenge to date," Gase said. "Just seeing how (Marinelli) coaches those guys, I'm not surprised how these guys are playing -- just relentless. From the beginning of the play to the end of the play they're going to play all the way to the whistle."

And they're going to move around -- no defensive lineman more than Ware.

Two of his four sacks this season have come from a down stance at left defensive end; two have come in the same stance from right end. But he'll also work standing up at the snap from both sides.

Ware is one of the game's best pass rushers with good reason: he attacks in an array of ways.

Although he could use his speed to get plenty of pressure from the edge, half of his sacks this season have come when he set up the opposing blocker and then changed direction back to the inside, quickly collapsing the pocket as the quarterback stepped forward.

This was the known commodity of Dallas' defense, even as it changed from a 3-4 to a 4-3, and Ware's transition has been seamless. The questions revolved around replacing Spencer, but in Selvie, the Cowboys found a gem.

A seventh-round pick of the Rams out of South Florida in 2010, Selvie was an All-American as a sophomore in 2007, logging 14.5 sacks, but had just nine in the following two seasons. The emergence of Jason Pierre-Paul further marginalized Selvie, who was regarded as too small (250 pounds) and without enough speed to compensate for the lack of size. That led to his modest draft status and a peripatetic journey through the league: from St. Louis to Carolina and then Jacksonville in his first three seasons before Dallas.

Kiffin's scheme and the Cowboys were the right place at the right time for Selvie -- just like some of his pass rushes have been.

His first sack came in a goal-line defensive package when Giants running back David Wilson badly missed a block; his third came when Chargers right tackle D.J. Fluker appeared to get confused as Selvie let Antonio Gates fly off the snap untouched, Selvie ran around the slow-to-react Fluker to bring down Philip Rivers.

But Selvie's second sack, against St. Louis, saw him stunt inside from left defensive end, where he bounced off Harvey Dahl and then closed on Sam Bradford to finish off the play.

Selvie is also credited with 13 quarterback hurries, per -- just two behind Ware. Factor in the play of fellow defensive lineman Jason Hatcher -- who has three sacks and 11 hurries so far -- and the Cowboys are doing just fine without Spencer, and represent a stern test for the Broncos' still-gelling offensive line.

The Broncos and Cowboys have overcome adversity already to build solid pass rushes. How well each unit continues on that path will likely determine who wins Sunday.