DALLAS — Perhaps the toughest test of the season has arrived.
The Broncos face the Cowboys in a Week 9 showdown, and as Denver aims to avoids falling below .500, they'll face a team that has performed well on both sides of the football.
Dallas boasts the league's best total offense and ranks third in scoring, and the Cowboys' defense ranks third in takeaways and second on third down.
The Cowboys enter with a six-game win streak, and they scored at least 35 points in each of the last four games in which starting quarterback Dak Prescott has been active.
"Obviously, the record tells you what the challenge is, and the scores of some of their games tell you what the challenge is," Head Coach Vic Fangio said Friday. "They have a great offense. It's balanced — running and passing with great players and a good scheme. Their defense is much improved, and they're playing fast. They're a fast defense, and they're playing great."
For Denver to have a chance to pull off the upset in the team's first game since trading Von Miller this week, the Broncos will need to play perhaps their most complete game of the season.
"We have to play good," Fangio said. "We have to play a really good game in all three phases. They're really good, [so] we have to play really good."
These are the questions that will determine if the Broncos can steal a win at Jerry World and earn their biggest victory of the season.
CAN DENVER SLOW THE COWBOYS' OFFENSE?
The Broncos' defense faces an unenviable task this week as it tries to slow down perhaps the league's best offense.
Prescott ranks fourth in the league in passing yards per game and is third in touchdown passes per game. Ezekiel Elliott ranks fifth in rushing yards and rushing touchdowns, and he's on pace to cruise past the 1,000-yard mark on the season. Second-year wideout CeeDee Lamb already has 609 yards and four touchdowns, and Amari Cooper is just behind him with 495 yards and five scores. Put simply, there's too many weapons on the Cowboys' offense to shut them out completely.
"He does it all really well," safety Justin Simmons said of Prescott. "I think he reads defenses really well. He has full command — it seems like, already — of the offense. He directs traffic really well and gets the ball where it needs to. He can move the defense with his eyes, and the thing that makes him dangerous is when it's all not there, he still has the ability to scramble, run and get the yards that are needed. Any quarterback that can do that and throw as well as he can throw — both short, intermediate, and long — poses a big threat for a defense. We've got our work cut out for us, but I'm excited."
Prescott did not play last week as he battled a calf injury, but he was not assigned a game status on the team's injury report and seems poised to return. For the Broncos to give themselves a chance, they must keep the receivers in front of them and not allow the big passing plays that plagued them earlier in the season.
"They have the wide receivers and so forth, but we're up to this task — we really are," Defensive Coordinator Ed Donatell said. "We're going to have to be as disciplined as we've ever been in our gap control, and our tackling has to be on point. We're going to have to have some great cover outside. There's going to be one-on-ones out there, and we really see that our guys can be effective."
One other area to watch: the Broncos' linebackers in pass coverage. A week ago, Washington running back J.D. McKissic led the team with eight catches for 83 yards. Against Elliott, the Broncos' inside linebackers — whether that's Kenny Young, Baron Browning or Justin Strnad — must be able to prevent Elliott from picking up big gains.
Of course, the Broncos' task is only made more difficult by the potential absence of Malik Reed. The new top rusher for the Broncos aggravated a hip injury on Thursday and is listed as questionable. Without Miller available, the team was likely counting on Reed to provide a rush. Now, the Broncos may need to turn to some even younger players. Dallas has allowed just 12 sacks, the sixth fewest in the league entering Week 9, but the Broncos cannot allow Prescott to have unlimited time to pass.
WILL THE BRONCOS' OFFENSE KEEP UP?
Even if the Denver defense can limit Prescott and Co., the Broncos' offense must do its part.
A week ago, Denver was efficient on its two touchdown drives, totaling 138 yards and using some chunk plays to its advantage. That didn't happen often enough, though, as the Broncos combined for just 135 yards and three points on its other six combined possessions.
If the game remains close, the Broncos may be best served by chewing time off the clock and piecing together long drives. They've shown a knack for that this season, and keeping Prescott off the field may be the team's best defensive strategy. However, if the Cowboys force the Broncos to keep pace, Denver will likely need to find a way to speed up its tempo and hit on some chunk plays. After creating just one gain of more than 13 yards against the Browns (excluding penalties), Denver posted nine such gains against Washington and had two of at least 30 yards. They'll look to continue that momentum on Sunday.
The Broncos will be without Noah Fant, who remains on the Reserve/COVID-19 list, but Jerry Jeudy should take another step in his second week back from injury and Courtland Sutton will likely want to make an impact in his Texas homecoming. Second-year tight end Albert Okwuegbunam could also see increased targets with Fant out, and he has the size and speed to make an impact. As Teddy Bridgewater looks for his weapons, he must be aware of second-year cornerback Trevon Diggs, who leads the NFL in interceptions. Denver's offensive line must also hold up without Garett Bolles as the unit faces Randy Gregory and rookie Micah Parsons.
In short, Denver needs everyone on offense to play at their best.
"We have to do everything a little bit better," Fangio said Wednesday. "We have to protect a little better. We have to run it a little bit better. We have to throw and catch it a little bit better. Just a little bit in all areas will provide more results."
HOW DO THE BRONCOS ADJUST TO LIFE WITHOUT VON MILLER?
Rookie outside linebacker Jonathon Cooper was shocked. Bridgewater and Kareem Jackson, two veterans, understood it was part of the business. And there was unanimous sentiment from the players, coaches and front office that the team found it difficult to part ways with Von Miller.
But now, the Broncos must move on.
From a personnel standpoint, the Broncos believe they have some young rushers who can fill the void, though that effort would be helped if Reed is able to play. From a personal standpoint, the impact of Miller's trade may be a bit more interesting.
Will players rally to prove they can step up in Miller's absence — or will they miss the emotional spark Miller provided?
Bridgewater, Simmons and wide receiver Courtland Sutton expressed their belief that the team will respond the right way. Bridgewater spoke Wednesday about how Miller's departure is an opportunity for other players, while Simmons and Sutton said they both believe the Broncos can still make something of the 2021 season.
"I don't think anybody else had a thought that we were going to come into this and after Von just straight up say, 'Forget the rest of these games,'" Sutton said. "We're 4-4, we've got everything right in front of us, and we're going to take it one week at a time, as we have been. Whenever we get done with the season, we'll look up and hopefully we'll like where we're at, and hopefully, we're sitting in L.A. hoisting that trophy. Everything is right in front of us, and it's upon us to take advantage of the opportunity."
Simmons said he know the team will have to prove itself on the field, rather than through the media, and he pointed to the game against Dallas as an opportunity to do just that.
From both a leadership perspective and an on-field play perspective, the Broncos will need players like Simmons, Sutton and Bridgewater to be at their best on Sunday. If they can do that, the rest of the team will likely follow.
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