- Jeff Legwold, ESPN Staff Writer
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ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- The Denver Broncos will take their points factory on the road this weekend, heading to Texas to face the Dallas Cowboys in AT&T Stadium. And while some of the Cowboys defenders got their competitive hackles up a bit this week, saying they were “sick’’ of hearing about Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning, they may not like looking at him all that much either.
With that in mind here are some things to consider:
More of the same: There have been 10, 400-yard passing games already this season and the Cowboys are the only team to have surrendered two of them -- 450 yards to Eli Manning in the season opener and 401 yards to Philip Rivers Sunday. The Cowboys have an active front four under defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin. As Kiffin has always done, they attack the A gaps hard, often working the spaces between the guards and the center. Dallas has speed at linebacker, though Ernie Sims is expected to move into the weak-side linebacker spot this week in place of Bruce Carter.
The issue is in the secondary, particularly when the Cowboys are pushed into the nickel formation. Orlando Scandrick will be in the slot when the Broncos go to three wide receiver sets and Scandrick will face Wes Welker. There will be big-play potential there for the Broncos and that will be one of the matchups to watch in the game. The Cowboys have used Scandrick on the outside in their base defense as well, replacing Morris Claiborne at times at the right cornerback spot. Claiborne has not played with confidence and has often been late to locate the flight of the ball, particularly when running stride for stride in man coverage.
Few quarterbacks pounce a lack of confidence anywhere in the pattern like Manning. The Chargers also repeatedly had success lining up tight ends and running backs wide, pulling the Cowboys linebackers out of the middle of the field and putting them in coverage assignments in the intermediate and deep routes. Chargers tight end Antonio Gates was targeted 10 times Sunday by Rivers and the Cowboys did not defend one of those passes as Gates finished with 10 catches. The Broncos could have similar success if they go to an open formation with tight ends Jacob Tamme and Julius Thomas lined up wide.
Protect the edge: Cowboys defensive end DeMarcus Ware was not full speed for much of the Cowboys loss against the Chargers because of a back strain and has dealt with stingers to his neck and shoulder area this year -- he has said publicly he has had them since 2009. But Ware still represents the biggest challenge to left tackle Chris Clark since he was moved into the lineup for the injured Ryan Clady. Chargers coach Mike McCoy, who was the Broncos’ offensive coordinator in 2011 and 2012, and offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt used a variety of two-back and two tight formations to slow down the Cowboys rush. McCoy also used Ware’s desire to get up the field against the veteran defensive end at times, using a kick-out block to get Ware out and send a running play to Ware’s inside shoulder. The
Broncos have been effective out of their two tight end look and have protected Manning well overall, but nothing slows down an aggressive front like a good run game. Kiffin’s philosophy through the years has always been for the defensive linemen to play the run on the way to the quarterback, so an offense that can turn some of the defensive linemen will find some gaps.
Rushing Romo: The Broncos see a more cautious Tony Romo at quarterback this season and they believe it has increased his effectiveness as well. For the most part Romo has gotten the ball out quickly and has completed 46.4 percent of his passes to the team’s running backs and tight ends -- DeMarco Murray and Jason Witten each have 21 receptions. “He’s has had this thing where he’s turned the ball over in the past in tough situations,’’ said Broncos cornerback Champ Bailey. “He’s not doing that this year. That is probably the biggest difference in the offense from the previous offenses I’ve seen from them. He’s playing great.’’
The Cowboys have moved veteran Brian Waters into the lineup at right guard and have a rookie at center in Travis Frederick. The Cowboys handled the Chargers’ four-man rush for the most part, but San Diego repeatedly created pressure when they added at least one more rusher to the formation. The Broncos have largely rushed four this year, but when they’ve gone to five, they have been highly efficient. They have six of their sacks and two interceptions this season when they have rushed five. The Cowboys have used Romo on rollouts at times, to give him a little more time to escape pressure from the middle. Romo has most often rolled to his throwing hand. The Cowboys also have used a flip-flop approach in the play-calling at times, running out of pass looks and throwing out of heavier formations.
Special-ness: The Broncos have scored three times on special teams already in four games, including a blocked punt for a score last Sunday against the Eagles. Before Thursday night’s Browns-Bills game, the rest of the league had scored four special teams touchdowns combined in the season’s first four weeks. Some personnel executives in the league consider the Cowboys’ depth chart to be thin after the starters and the impact of that can often be seen on special teams. The Broncos will likely have a chance to make a play on those units.
Make some room: Even with all of the fireworks in a record start for the offense, the Broncos still haven’t always made room in the running game when they want/need to. The Broncos have had 37 run plays this season go for two or fewer yards -- that’s 30.8 percent of their rushing plays on the season and they have had six carries for negative yards in four games combined. To consistently keep Manning clean and to close out games should they need to in the weeks ahead, they’re going to need more than that.