MHR Chalk Talk -- Dallas Cowboys at Denver Broncos (Wk 3, '09)

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(Author's note - This is Breast Cancer Awareness month for the NFL, and that is why you'll see the color pink around the NFL.  If you are one of MHR's wonderful ladies that frequents this site, PLEASE consider getting a mammogram and learn how perform a self exam.  If you are a one of the many men that calls MHR home, pester your wife, mother, girlfriend, or - if you're old enough - your daughter to get checked.  Breast cancer can be beaten if it gets caught early enough.  See your doctor about low cost and even free options that are available.)

Denver fans have been delighted at the play of their team.  While many outsiders have made an issue of the turbulence during the off-season, new head coach Josh McDaniels seems to have done everything that has been asked of him.

First, his new QB has protected the football.  Gone are the interceptions of yesteryear, and with a solid QB rating in the 90s, Kyle Orton (playing with a restrictive glove to protect an injury) has silently flown under the radar.  He has distributed the ball amongst several receivers, TEs, and even RBs in the passing game, leaving opposing teams to wonder if they should cover "the stars" or anything that moves.  Here's a great stat I picked up from ESPN -

Kyle Orton became only the fourth quarterback during the NFL's expansion era (that is, since 1960) to win his first three starts for a team, throwing at least one touchdown pass and no interceptions in each game.

Second, new names at RB haven't disappointed.  A few weeks ago, fans would have panicked at the prospect of missing Peyton Hillis to an injury.  Correll Buckhalter is a candidate for ground player of the week at NFL.com (vote for him here), and despite some injury issues, rookie Knowshon Moreno is improving each week to show off his 1st round potential.

And least, but far, far, far from least is the improved play at defense.  Future Hall of Famers Champ Bailey and Brian Dawkins are deadly to opposing offenses, but the secret in the secondary (unless you read MHR, because we knew it all along) is that Renaldo Hill and Andre Goodman are not just your average DBs - they're outstanding.  As if that isn't enough, the defensive front seven are wreaking havoc.  Elvis Dumervil alone is averaging 2 sacks per game, and even the recently lauded Cincy Bengals couldn't put a dent in the Broncos' defense.

But it is the same old story.  Instead of being allowed to enjoy one of the best starts Denver has had in a long time, there are some who want to tarnish the shine.  They point out that Denver hasn't "played anybody".  Many of those same folks rate Denver below the Bengals (the team that Denver beat), and laud the Bengals as being a surprisingly good team.  Those same folks praise other teams who have beaten the same teams we have.  The only way to get respect in the NFL is to win games, but that doesn't seem to be enough for the Broncos.

So Denver needs this game, to beat a worthy opponent, to get respect.  Perhaps.  I'm thinking Dallas needs it more.  If Dallas wins, the media will give them credit for beating a solid Denver defense.  If Dallas loses, the talking heads will immediately proclaim that Dallas wasn't a contender from the start.

But we don't care what "they" say.  We know this is a fair test.  Denver is at home, Dallas is coming off of a short week after playing on MNF, and we realize that nobody is really going to put Dallas in the same category as Oakland or Cleveland (at least, not before the game).  So here we go; Denver's first real test.  We've had the time and games to get up to speed, and we've performed very well.  Let's see how we do in a game that many folks would call us underdogs in.  Dallas isn't a great team, but they certainly aren't a bad team.  Let's take a look at how both teams match-up, and try to figure out what may happen at the quarter mark of the 2009 season for Denver....

Injuries

Some quick notes on injuries. 

Dallas has a three-headed monster with their running game.  Of the three, Felix Jones looks like he won't be playing on Sunday.  Marion Barber was limited in practice (at the time of this writing), and is nursing a thigh injury that might keep him from playing.  If he does play, he might not be 100%.  Tashard Choice may get a lot of touches this game.  On defense, pass rushing great Demarcus Ware is very probable for the game.  Playing at weakside LB in the Dallas 3-4, Ware is a threat whenever he gets on the field (though he hasn't garned a sack yet this season).

Dallas is one of those teams that has entered the modern era of RBs, using a committee approach.  This was wise, as even the loss of one (and possibly two) RBs shouldn't hurt them.  The key injury for Dallas would be Ware, but as I wrote earlier, it looks like he will play.

On the Denver side of things, Hillis is questionable at RB, but Denver shouldn't miss a beat with the rotation of Buckhalter and Moreno.  Without Spencer Larsen, the STs coverage unit will be missing a key component.  There's no definitive word yet on Ben Hamilton and Ryan Harris on the OL.  Both are key players, and Denver may have to rely on depth to fill some holes.  WR Brandon Stokley was a concern early in the week, but now looks probable.  So far, the Ameoba philosophy protects Denver from some key injuries (because there are really no weaknesses behind our starters).

The key concern may be nickle back Alphonso Smith.  His ankle injury kept him from practice on Wed, and he needs that ankle to be in perfect shape to do the two things CBs need to be able to do - run fast and make quick turns.  I'm not hopeful that Smith will be 100%, and that means either moving up CB Jack Williams or one of the back-up safeties.  More on this later.

Now, onto the match-ups.  There are so many great pairings in this game that it is hard to know where to start at.

Denver offense vs. Dallas defense

Dallas has been solid against the run against two teams that can run the ball well (NYG and CAR).  Denver can go up the middle against a stout defense that plugs the gaps and creates opportunities for the LBs, or they can go wide and face the wide aligned OLBs.  Denver is a solid running team, still using the zone block, and features two RBs this week that can trade off running time.  This is as close to an even match-up as it gets.

Denver's run game is good, and so is the pass.  But Denver's bread and butter is the run.  Orton only needs to protect the ball and take opportunities as they present themselves.  With the intricate screen passes that Denver plays, Orton can make the easy pass, then let the receiver and his blockers do the rest.  But the run game makes it all work.  The run game means possession time, it means keeping opposing offenses off of the field, and it means a lack of turnovers.

Denver would much rather play a running attack against the Cowboys.  If the running game fails, it is all up to Orton.  Orton has proven that he's better than the naysayers think, but we haven't yet seen him in a shoot out, and we really don't want to go that route unless we have to.

The Dallas secondary is an enigma.  On the one hand, they have a lot of talent.  Safety Ken Hamlin is at double the League average for tackles with 14.  Terence Newman is a dangerous threat at #1 CB.  And Mike Jenkins and Orlando Scandrick are both neck and neck in a battle for the #2 CB position (Jenkins will start this week).  Like Denver, they have a #2 quality CB playing at nickle.  In other words, Denver can bring out their depth at WR, and (unlike many teams) Dallas can counter with depth at CB.

On the other hand, this good secondary is giving up a lot of deep passes.

Orton has shown some flashes with deep passes (though he's been accused of not having a strong arm).  Orton may brush the defense back with some deep throws to support the running game, and catch Dallas off guard.  If Denver sells the run, those deep passes may amount to yards or points.  If the running game bogs down, they'll be a gamble that pays off or costs dearly.

Watch for both teams to use their TEs a lot.  Denver will rely on the TEs (especialy Daniel Graham and Richard Quinn) to help with the run blocking, but the threat is that they can break into routes at any time.  Dallas is talented enough to cover Graham and receiving TE Tony Scheffler, but the key will be knowing if the TEs are supporting the run or going out.  This is a guessing game that should cost Dallas on plays here and there.

Denver's OL injuries might be a factor.  Fortunately for Denver, Ryan Clady is at LT, facing Ware.  Analysts will argue over whether last year's sack master is better or worse than the LT who didn't give up a sack last year, but at least in run blocking, Clady should have a clear edge against the line and against Ware in the second level.

When Denver's offense is on the field, the TEs will be key.  Even if they don't get the ball much, the threat that they might, and their skills in the blocking game will be key.

 

Dallas offense vs. Denver defense

As mentioned earlier, the Dallas running game can power along even with out one or two starting RBs.  All three RBs are legit starters, and the Dallas OL is big and effective.  Like Denver's offense, they face a very tough defense.

Dallas is the top running team in the League.  They favor power running, and love to run at their opponents.  If Denver can stop the Dallas running game, they can stop anybody's running game.  Like Denver, the key to winning for both teams is the running game.

Looking at this game, perhaps the two most intriguing players are OC Andre Gurode (a 315 pound, 6'4 big guy who went to Colorado) and TE Jason Witten.  If, like a lot of folks, you don't watch the trenches, you'll be missing a treat if you don't watch Gurode match wits and muscle with NT Ronald Fields.  If Gurode handles Fields, the run game is half won for Dallas.

But in the passing game, Witten is more key than QB Tony Romo and his receivers combined.  Not to take anything away from a good receiving corps, but Denver's secondary is beyond elite.  But Witten poses a clear and present danger in more than one facet of the passing game.

First, the 5-2 look that Denver presents is like all other formations and systems - there are weaknesses.  Covering the TE presents a lot of choices, and each has risks.  First, Denver's true LBs are at ILB (inside linebacker).  The two outer "OLBs" are really DEs, both in alignment and even playing history.  Neither DE/OLB is a match for Witten, and the two ILBs are too far away (and aligned to stop the interior run we can expect from Dallas).

Second, Denver covers the WRs with a layered defense of extreme quality defensive backs.  If one of those backs (Hill or Dawkins) goes into man coverage on Witten, this leaves the deep field exposed.  Denver doesn't have as great of an option if they go with a nickle formation to cover Witten, since Alphonso Smith is out.

If the seams and slots are the weakness of the 5-2, Witten (who is Romo's best target) should eat Denver alive.  Denver will adjust, but the adjustment will cost them from another sector of the game.

 

Keys to the Game

Denver -

  1. Be effective running the ball.  Denver may be a shoot-out team, and may be able to fly down the field.  But nobody has seen that yet, and we don't want to find out.
  2. Score first.  Both teams would love to play a ball control, clock control game.  The team that scores first forces the other team to weigh a more risky gameplan.
  3. Special teams must help with the field position battle.  With both teams duking it out in the trenches for every yard, gains on punts and kicks could be key for getting a team in FG range.  Denver is missing Larsen, the lead tackler in Denver's STs coverage units.

Dallas -

  1. Use Witten.  Denver is already planning on how to contain Witten, but he remains the best option for Dallas in the passing game.
  2. Protect Romo.  Romo can make mistakes when he is getting pressured, and Denver has been bringing a lot of pressure.  Stopping Dumervil is crucial.
  3. Forget the zone.  Denver WR Brandon Marshall tore up the Oakland LBs in the middle of the field with some quick slants.  The Dallas CBs should man their WRs and test Orton.

Conclusion

Denver is much better than a lot of talking heads think.  Dallas won't rely on the media for their take on Denver - they'll study the film and prepare for a hard fought game.  Denver is also aware that they face a quality team this week.  Both teams will bring their "A" game.  But who will win?

Denver needs this game if they want to even think about the playoffs.  I'm not one to agree with ESPN's Bill Williamson much, but I'm going to give him the credit for his thoughts in this piece...

...What’s ahead: We’re going to find out if Denver is a contender or a pretender in the coming weeks. Denver faces top teams in eight of its next 10 contests. It also plays at Philadelphia in Week 16. Denver's next five games are at home against Dallas and New England and on the road at San Diego, Baltimore and Pittsburgh. Games against the New York Giants and Indianapolis also loom. I guess the 1972 Dolphins and 1985 Bears were busy. This is a tough stretch and the Broncos know it. But Denver is confident, well-prepared and McDaniels knows a lot about playing in pressure games. The team is healthy and it feels like it can navigate this stretch competitively.

Realistic outcome: It is very difficult to expect the Broncos to run through this schedule without difficulty. But early success gives Denver some breathing room. If Denver goes 5-5 in the next 10 games it will be 8-5 and probably in the playoff mix heading to the stretch run. Denver has to keep winning at home and steal a couple of road games. It has to take advantage of its two remaining games against Kansas City and its home game against Oakland. Denver can’t stumble in winnable games. If Denver can stay healthy, I think it can stay in the race. This doesn’t look like a team that will fall apart. I think it will only get better under McDaniels. Realistically, the Broncos can be a factor in the playoff race.

 

Denver made their early season mistakes in the pre-season, and is already looking like a team in mid-season form.  They are at home, and playing an opponent that matches with them pretty evenly.  Denver has beaten two teams that aren't contenders (Oak and Cle) and one team that is also surprising the League (Cincy).  Dal has gone toe to toe with quality teams, win or lose.

This one is at home, and both teams have some injury concerns.

Coaching - Den

Running - Dal (not to take from Denver, but Dal leads the League)

QB - Den (not to take away from Romo, but no INTs and at least 1 TD per game for Orton)

Receivers - Den

TEs - Den (in depth, but Witten is more likely to be a game changer based on match-ups)

OL - even (taking into account injuries to Harris and Hamilton.  Clady remains a rock star)

DL - even

LBs - even

CBs - Den

SAFs - Den

STs - Den

You could look at the list and say that Denver is better in more categories, but that would be too simplistic.  For example, Denver has three terrific TEs, but Witten is a game changer.  Denver has more and better CBs, but Smith is questionable for the game.  Can Denver's STs perform without leading tackler Spencer Larsen?  They still have K Matt Prater, the AFC special teams player of the month.

Before the season started (in fact, well before the pre-season), I predicted that Denver could win the first two games, and would win one game against Oakland with the other game being a toss-up.  (Fortunately, we won the away game, increasing our odds of a sweep).  Against Dal, I think I had us at 50/50.  Denver is doing what I thought they would - play better as a team, regardless of record.  Their play is so much better, in fact, that while I'm sticking with my 8-8 prediction for now, I think DAL is one of those toss-up games that goes to Denver.

I'll give the edge to Denver at home.  Dallas has looked very good, but has had some bad moments.  In fairness, they've played some teams that are pretty good (at least they were last year).  Denver has been consistent.  Oakland should have been easy, and Cleveland only a little less so.  But Cincy has been looking very good, and Denver walked over them.  (No, there was no miracle pass.  There WAS a good play on a tipped ball by Brandon Stokley, as well as an earlier TD reception that "miraculously" didn't happen because Denver's WR tripped).

Denver has only given up 5.3 points per game on avg so far this year, and that's a darned good stat against any three teams in the NFL.  I'll take Denver in a close one. 

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