Now that it’s “safe to say” Dak Prescott will play in week nine, the Broncos’ chances at victory are fleeting. If the 2016 fourth round pick is close to 100% healthy after the extended time off, he’ll be the scariest quarterback the Denver defense has faced this year outside of maybe Lamar Jackson, and he won’t have to sweat Von Miller rushing off the edge.
It’s safe to say the Broncos’ odds look grim, which is why Dallas is considered a heavy favorite. If Fangio and his 4-4 squad are going to make a statement, they’ll need to come out on the winning end of the four following matchups.
Broncos edge rushers vs. the Cowboys tackles
Von Miller’s a Ram, and his absence will put a spotlight on the Broncos’ edge rotation the rest of the season, starting in Dallas. After Malik Reed suffered a hip injury during practice Friday, things are getting off to a really rough start. The 2019 undrafted free agent is now Denver’s best edge rusher, and the only one who has more than seven career sacks.
If Reed shouldn’t play or is seriously hampered, the lion’s share of the burden will fall on rookie Jonathon Cooper and the recently acquired Stephen Weatherly, with Aaron Patrick acting as the primary reserve. I’d be surprised if the Broncos don’t call practice squad edge Pita Taumoepenu up to the active roster.
What helps the matchup is how the Cowboys are dealing with an injury situation of their own. Future Hall of Famer Tyron Smith is going to miss the game and Terence Steele will start in his place at left tackle. Steele’s been the starting right tackle for six of the Cowboys’ seven games this season, so it’s worth mentioning that Dallas currently ranks as the best team in football at rushing to the right by Football Outsiders’ Adjusted Line Yards metric. Whoever lines up across from him Sunday is going to need some lead in their pants.
On the right side, it looks like La’el Collins will earn his second start since 2019. The former undrafted free agent missed all of 2020 with a hip injury and received a suspension after his week one start against the Buccaneers. With all the time off, it’s definitely possible Collins has to shake off a little rust, which could prove to be a huge boon for the Broncos.
As Cowboys navigate LT Tyron Smith (ankle) likely missing Sunday vs. Broncos, arrangement that gets best five on field seems clear: LT Terence Steele, LG Connor Williams, C Tyler Biadasz, RG Zack Martin and RT La’el Collins. OT Ty Nsekhe didn’t capitalize on LT reps vs. Vikings.— Michael Gehlken (@GehlkenNFL) November 3, 2021
Broncos tackles vs. Cowboys edge rushers
Due to a high ankle sprain suffered in the Washington game, Garett Bolles will miss the game in Dallas and Calvin Anderson will get his first start of the 2021 campaign. Fortunately for the Broncos, Anderson does not look like he’ll have to face off against DeMarcus Lawrence, who remains on Injured Reserve because of a broken foot. Instead, Anderson will spend most of Sunday facing off against Tarell Basham and Randy Gregory, who split time at right defensive end. Gregory is the more scary pass rusher, and he has the kind of burst and repertoire to expose Anderson’s overaggressive sets. The Broncos will need the former undrafted free agent to play patiently, or Teddy Bridgewater could feel heat off his blindside.
While injuries throw a bit of a wrench at the matchups on the left side of the Denver line, health is not a question on the right. Signed as an injury replacement for Ja’Wuan James, Bobby Massie’s been as advertised for the Broncos this season. To try to protect the veteran, Shurmur and the Broncos coaching staff have leaned on plenty of extra help from the tight ends and backs. That’s going to be harder to pull off in Dallas because of Anderson on the other side.
Pat Shurmur’s gone out of his way to try to help the veteran in pass protection with plenty of chips from tight ends and backs so far, and that’s probably going to be the answer against Micah Parsons. The rookie linebacker moved to edge after the Lawrence injury, and he looks like a natural. His combination of explosiveness, play strength, and heavy hands will be a huge problem for Massie.
Okwuegbunam vs. the Dallas pass defense
I am personally bummed that Noah Fant is going to miss what could have been a true breakout game in Dallas. The 2019 first round pick has drawn a ton of consternation in Broncos Country because of his issues with penalties and blocking, as well as the way Shurmur’s used him. He is currently in Covid protocol and will not be active for the game because he hasn’t had consecutive negative tests yet. Without him in the lineup, Denver will hopefully turn to Albert Okwuegbunam, Eric Saubert, and Andrew Beck in order to try to exploit the one significant hole in the Dallas pass defense: through seven games, they’re currently the worst team in the league against tight ends by DVOA.
Officially listed as questionable with a knee issue ahead of the game, Okwuegbunam’s status bears monitoring. If he plays, he’s the one tight end on the Broncos’ roster who can replicate most of what Fant does as a receiver. He’s an explosive athlete who has the quickness and size to create mismatches against both linebackers and defensive backs. In the one game he started for Fant last year, he received six targets despite being on the field for just 37% of the Broncos’ offensive snaps. While Drew Lock was the starting quarterback during that game, Bridgewater isn’t afraid to target tight ends. Fant, Saubert, and Okwuegbunam make up 27.4% of the Broncos’ target share so far this season, and that came with Okwuegbunam missing three games.
Bridgewater with a nice pass to Albert Okwuegbunam pic.twitter.com/OvbJPZrg7A— Joe Rowles (@JoRo_NFL) October 31, 2021
Browning and Young vs. Prescott and Moore
Since Josey Jewell’s injury against the Jacksonville Jaguars, Denver has had significant issues defending the middle of the field. Typically the defensive play caller, without him in the lineup the Broncos’ linebackers have had communication miscues on top of blown assignments. This, combined with the problems fitting against the run had a domino effect throughout the whole defense. The issues were front and center in the losses to the Steelers and Raiders, and Justin Strnad’s struggles became so pronounced by the end of the Browns game that he lost his starting job.
In week eight, Fangio resorted to desperate measures. Days after trading for Kenny Young from the Los Angeles Rams, the Broncos started him against the Washington Football Team. Rookie third round pick Baron Browning also made his first start in orange and blue after he missed almost the entirety of OTAs and training camp because he was in the training room. Truth be told, the pair looked a lot better than I expected, but they were the epitome of “if you’re going to make mistakes, make them going 100 miles per hour.” Washington tried, but failed to take advantage with plenty of natural rubs and shallow crossers working through their zones.
Where the Football Team failed, Kellen Moore and Dak Prescott will try and succeed. The Cowboys’ offensive coordinator is among the best play callers in the NFL this year and Prescott has the kind of surgical precision to shred spacing mistakes underneath. If Fangio didn’t figure out a way to mitigate the damage, the Cowboys will have no problem slicing them up for easy completions all afternoon.
Will the Broncos beat the Cowboys?
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Depends, who’s playing QB?
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