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Tale of the Tape: How the Broncos shut down the Cowboys running game

Sunday’s obliteration of the Cowboy’s juggernaut was reminiscent of holding Aaron Rodgers to 77 yards passing in 2015. Here’s how they did it.

NFL: Dallas Cowboys at Denver Broncos Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

This week’s film study was a fun one. All of last year, I watched in disgust as our defensive line was consistently driven off the ball, and we struggled to make even routine plays against the run.

This year, the improved run defense has been as good, or better than advertised, so I wanted to take a deep dive into what has made the difference.

Vance Joseph offered some insight on the topic on Wednesday when asked about the defensive improvements:

“I think it’s two parts. I think it’s personnel driven with signing [NT Domata] Peko and getting bigger. [DE Adam] Gotsis obviously stepping up and playing well. It’s also schematically driven—how we are fitting the run now, it’s different. Our linebackers are getting downhill faster. It’s taking the pressure off of the nose, the five and the three-technique. It’s both.”

We’ll dig into both of those components as we go through the film today and see how both the personnel/execution has played a big part, as well as what schematic elements have changed.

Here we go.


First I want to give a shout out to Joe Woods for the creativity he showed on Sunday. He is continuing Wade Phillip’s trend of utilizing the players you have to the best of their abilities and fitting what you do to what the players do best.

He broke out one of my favorite formations that I want to highlight.

This is what I call our Base/Nickel hybrid. I broke it down in a film study about a year ago. Wade Phillips originally used this against Green Bay in 2015, and in the Super Bowl against the Panthers.

It is our base front-7 with Talib, Roby, and Harris at corner, and a free safety. Essentially swapping out one safety from base, to add a corner. Or swapping a safety for an extra lineman in nickel. However you want to look at it.

The cool thing it allows Denver to matchup in the secondary against 11 personnel (3 WRs/1RB/1TE) and still stop the run. Denver’s plan all day was to man up their corners across the board, and play a single high safety over the top to prevent big plays, while letting the rest of the front-7 commit to stopping the run.

Because when you have such good corners, why would you not want them all on the field as much as possible?

Denver also used their base 3-4 look as well, either matching Simmons or Stewart up in man coverage on the TE, and often bringing Stewart up in the box as almost another linebacker.

The biggest thing that allows it to work, is Denver’s trust in their corners, and the belief/trust that their front-7 will get home before any potential breakdowns in the secondary.

This is why when asked about the upcoming Cardinals/Cowboys game if Denver had given a blueprint for stopping the Cowboys, Head Coach Bruce Arians replied: “If you can borrow Denver’s players”.

It's easy to say, "You have to completely shut down the run and force the Cowboys to throw 50 times. Then you have to just leave your corners in man coverage against the Cowboys receivers all game, while also getting pressure without resorting to the blitz. And if they manage to get completions against your coverage, you can't miss any tackles all game because you have to limit their yards after the catch." It's a lot harder to actually do it, because there's only one Von Miller, there's only one Chris Harris, one Aqib Talib, one Bradley Roby, one Brandon Marshall, one Derek Wolfe, etc.

Biggest adjustment?

Lastly, Vance Joseph and Joe Woods have both talked about an adjustment they made to the way they were playing the run.

“We got together in the offseason, the coaching staff, and went back and looked at the previous season. We looked at it from a scheme standpoint, a player standpoint and how we were coaching it, and we felt like we could be more aggressive, especially versus double teams. We’re getting a lot of double teams and when the backers play downhill, it takes the double team off of the D-Linemen and frees them up. Right now, our inside linebackers are doing a great job of doing that. Our defensive line is doing a great job of penetrating and controlling their gaps. The first two games were really good against the run.”

We’ll dig into this concept more and see exactly how it’s playing out and freeing up Denver’s linemen to stop the run.

With that in mind, let’s jump into the film.

Play #1

The majority of Dallas’ running game is zone blocking principles. They primarily ran outside zone against Denver on Sunday. This is Dallas’ bread and butter, and as I broke down last year, they’re really good at it. So Denver came up with a specific plan to shut down their outside zone runs.

This one is the first run of the game, and it sets up a wrinkle we’ll see throughout the rest of the game.

Denver has two of the best run stopping OLBs in the league in Shaq Barrett and Von Miller; so their plan was to unleash those guys to attack the ball on the frontside of the zone runs and not worry about holding the edge.

Instead, one of the ILBs or safeties would scrape down the line and take the edge, freeing the edge player up to disrupt the run.

I ran this by O-line guru, and MHR friend Brandon Thorn, who did his own amazing breakdown of the game here, and he agreed that Denver is doing a gap exchange with the OLB, in order to disrupt the outside zone.

So check out how Barrett shoots upfield to penetrate into the backfield, and Marshall scrapes to the outside. Also notice, Peko and Wolfe holding off their respective blocks.

Peko was an absolute beast inside during this game. He and Wolfe/Gotsis holding their ground on the backside during these outside zones is what allowed this strategy to be successful.

Look at the front side of this run. Zeke has nowhere to go and has to cut it back into the waiting arms of Miller and Wolfe who have remained gap sound and held up the backside; and Barrett, since he shot so far upfield was able to get his hands on the running back as well.

Play #2

The next play is the same concept except to Miller’s side. Von shoots inside and occupies both TEs, so Witten is not able to double team Shelby Harris, and Harris is able to penetrate and disrupt the frontside of the play with Miller.

Notice Darian Stewart taking edge so Miller can attack.

Here’s Peko, again, shedding his block. Travis Frederick is one of the top centers in the game, and is typically excellent at reach blocking shaded NTs. But Peko was winning nearly every 1 on 1 battle between the two.

This time, Gotsis and Barrett are the backside pursuit, and they stay home and shed their blocks to close in on the play.

Play #3

This play is one of my favorite as it perfectly demonstrates what Joe Woods and Vance Joseph have talked about with their schematic shift. Here’s the quote from Woods so you don’t have to scroll up.

“We’re getting a lot of double teams and when the backers play downhill, it takes the double team off of the D-Linemen and frees them up. Right now, our inside linebackers are doing a great job of doing that. Our defensive line is doing a great job of penetrating and controlling their gaps.”

On this inside zone, the C and LG are double teaming Peko, and the LT and TE are wanting to double team Gotsis. Brandon Thorn called this out on his breakdown perfectly:

Broncos LB Todd Davis shoots the B gap once he reads the left guard doubling down with the center. This takes LT Smith off of his double team with TE Jason Witten, leaving Witten on a solo block against Gotsis.

It’s good recognition by the LT, because Davis is about to blow this play up, but it takes him off of the double team and leaves Witten 1v1 with Gotsis; a matchup I’ll take all day.

Last year, we wouldn’t have seen that attack, and Smith would have been able to double team Gotsis and push him off the ball, and then climb to the second level to take out Davis. This forces the action on the offense, making them change their plan.

Play #4

This time Dallas runs power. The LT and LG are going to double Shelby Harris, with RG, Zach Martin pulling around and leading the way, while the center pins the 2-tech.

Denver runs the same gap switching principle, and Barrett, again, attacks upfield.

Check out the block shed here. If Barrett allows himself to get hung up on the TE, the RG is charging through the hole and the RB has a nice seam to run through. But because he disrupts the play, Elliot has to cut back, and Barrett still gets him.

This is also a great example of Denver still stopping the run while in their Big Dime sub package.

Play #5

This play, Dallas uses a quick little pin/pull technique out of shotgun.

The LG is going to pin Peko while the C pulls around and leads the way up the B-gap.

This play is all Peko as he is able to fight through the block and clog up the middle.

This is a great wrinkle Denver added to their Big Dime. Keeping Peko in at 1-tech allows them to retain some additional run-stopping capabilities within their sub package, while also being nimble in coverage.

I originally thought we would see this more with Kerr at 1-tech in sub packages, but with his injury, Peko has stepped up and played that role well.

Play #6

Saved the best for last.

This is another outside zone play where Von Miller is going to absolutely blow up this run, and Wolfe is there to clean it up.

Notice how Von is going to shoot upfield, and Davis is going to scrape around and take the edge, like we talked about. Wolfe and Peko also do a great job individually defeating their blocks.

Von is in the backfield so early on this run, Zeke doesn’t even have time to cut back, so he tries to bounce it outside. But with Davis coming around to take away the edge, even if Wolfe doesn’t chase him down from the backside, he has nowhere to go.


So there you have it. We saw the effects of scheme and formation adjustments where the coaches put the players in the best position to succeed, and we also saw how much of an upgrade Peko and Gotsis/Harris are over Crick and Sly Williams. Barrett is also a massive upgrade in run defense over Shane Ray.

I tweeted out yesterday that Barrett and Peko nearly singlehandedly defeated the Cowboys run game because of how dominant they were. I’m not sure Ray gets his job back when he returns from injury, but that’s another post for another day.

Suffice it to say, Denver’s run defense has significantly improved in all facets. Look for more of the same against Buffalo and Rick Dennison who run a very similar zone scheme.