Days after trading the best pass rusher in franchise history to the Los Angeles Rams, the Denver Broncos secured a statement victory over the 6-1 Dallas Cowboys. For most of the contest it didn’t look close as Denver dominated the time of possession and every other meaningful stat. It’s easily the biggest victory of Vic Fangio’s career as Denver’s head coach and breathes new life into any hope that the Broncos can slog their way through the remaining schedule to the postseason.
I’ll fully admit the Broncos performance caught me by surprise. If you would have told me last night that the final score of today’s game would be 30-16, I’d have considered it a morale victory of sorts. Malik Reed suffered a hip injury on Friday and would be hampered if he could even suit up, while Denver’s linebackers looked like sitting ducks against Dak operating Moore’s passing attack. I would have looked at 30-16 and thought “well at least the offense got something going,” and my jaw would have hit the floor when you told me Denver pitched a shutout until the fourth quarter, because only then would I have realized the Broncos were the 30.
With that in mind, here’s the things that stood out to me during the broadcast.
Dak was rusty
After missing a week eight game against the Minnesota Vikings with a calf injury, Prescott’s status was never in much doubt ahead of today’s game. The veteran quarterback said it was “safe to say” he’d play on Thursday, so it seemed safe to assume he’d rediscover his the form that made him an MVP contender through the first half of the season. Instead he struggled with his ball placement throughout the game, especially when he was forced off his spot and had to throw on the move or reset his feet before passing.
The Broncos hold for yet another 4th down!!!! pic.twitter.com/8RsfV7V54y— Joe Rowles (@JoRo_NFL) November 7, 2021
Dallas pass catchers didn’t do Prescott any favors
By my very rough count, Cowboy receiver dropped something like six passes today and most of them were right in the numbers. For all the good we saw from Broncos’ defenders, it’s be disingenuous to pretend they weren’t given a few gifts.
Fangio’s gameplan was sound
The Broncos defense under Fangio is quietly part of a sort of revolution currently moving around the NFL. We take it for granted, but Denver plays with a ton of two high shells. This doesn’t seem remarkable and opponents have definitely grown accustom to it, but playing out of two high as often as they do allows the Broncos to disguise their intentions until the snap better than most teams around the league. Using two high as often as Denver does tends to bait teams into running the ball, as there’s a numbers advantage in the box. The philosophy behind this is that running the ball isn’t reliably efficient enough to ride down after down all game long.
Today the strategy worked like a charm. The Broncos were often willing to let Ezekiel Elliott and Tony Pollard find success on the ground because they devoted resources to defending the Cowboy’s passing game. As Teddy Bridgewater and the offense began to score, it put pressure on Dallas to move the ball quickly and they struggled to do so until it was too late.
Admittedly, I need to go back and watch the all-22 to really get a better idea as to what happened today because the Fox broadcast was so tight it’s hard to always see downfield, but it looked like Fangio and defensive coordinator Ed Donatell did a fantastic job with their wrenches on 3rd and 4th downs to keep Dak Prescott off balance.
Nate Hairston with a fantastic pass breakup on 3rd and long.— Joe Rowles (@JoRo_NFL) November 7, 2021
Broncos defense hangs tough for another drive. pic.twitter.com/hJP8F47Ko6
Shurmur had a smart gameplan
Credit where credit is due, the offensive coordinator did a good job keeping the Cowboys off balance. While his run-heavy approach will look brutal in the analytical models and could cost Denver dearly against a better defensive front, it worked to limit the banged up offensive line’s exposure to Dan Quinn’s blitz packages. Shurmur also did a better job mixing in easy completions for Bridgewater today. I still have nits to pick, such as the situations Denver dials up screens, but I thought the Broncos offensive coordinator put his players in positions to succeed today.
Denver had the better ground game
Due to an injury to Garett Bolles the Broncos entered the contest with Calvin Anderson making his third NFL start at left tackle. He held up marvelously, and his competitive toughness and aggressiveness played a notable role on the ground. Anderson vastly exceeded my expectations and I can’t wait to study his game at length.
Lloyd Cushenberry and Calvin Anderson made key blocks on this run: pic.twitter.com/M75RXqOdPW— Joe Rowles (@JoRo_NFL) November 7, 2021
By the end of the game, they were also playing rookie Quinn Meinerz at right guard and fourth string tackle Cameron Fleming in place of Bobby Massie. The injuries weren’t enough to prevent Melvin Gordon and Javonte Williams from rumbling off for 191 yards on 39 carries. The concentrated effort to run the ball helped to maximize Dalton Risner’s strengths as a lead blocker and also helped to protect Cameron Fleming, Lloyd Cushenberry, and Risner from too many stunts or Micah Parsons’ blitzing in long yardage situations.
Special teams remain a disaster
Sometimes it’s better to be lucky than good. At the end of the day, the blocked kick did not cost the Broncos points and because of one of the more befuddling rules in NFL history, they got a first down. With that said, I’ve been concerned about the Broncos punt protection all year. They’ve had a number of close calls and even a partial block against the Jets. The fact Malik Turner made it to Sam Martin untouched should lead to some sleepless nights for Tom McMahon.
In #DENvsDAL, the punt is blocked & goes beyond the line of scrimmage, where it's touched by the receiving team. Since the receiving team touches the ball beyond the line of scrimmage, the kicking team is eligible to recover the ball. DEN recovers the ball, but cannot advance it. pic.twitter.com/bcdUEGu3Jd— NFL Officiating (@NFLOfficiating) November 7, 2021
Big performances from key veterans on defense
- Shamar Stephen, Shelby Harris, and Dre’Mont Jones all made quiet plays that lead to victories today. They were creating pressure despite playing across from a very talented Cowboys’ interior line.
- Ronald Darby and Patrick Surtain II are quietly becoming a lockdown boundary.
- Justin Simmons had a very good day in coverage and was an invaluable part of run support from the third level.
- Kenny Young looks like a natural fit for the Fangio defense after a week in the system.
Really nice play by Justin Simmons on 4th and short pic.twitter.com/XRq905IhVk— Joe Rowles (@JoRo_NFL) November 7, 2021
Bridgewater made the most of the Broncos’ receiving corps.
The fact Teddy Bridgewater found ways to sprinkle in meaningful completions to Courtland Sutton, Eric Saubert, and Albert Okwuegbunam on his way to feeding Tim Patrick and Jerry Jeudy speaks well of the way he dissected the Dan Quinn defense. Patrick was tremendous with the way he fought for extra yards after completions short of the sticks on third down. Okwuegbunam played the Noah Fant role in the offense, which meant he helped on chips a good bit in the passing game. Both he and Saubert have better play strength to contribute in the role, and they played an unsung role in Anderson, Massie, and Fleming’s strong performance.
Teddy Bridgewater with a 44-yard checkdown for a touchdown to Tim Patrick.— Joe Rowles (@JoRo_NFL) November 7, 2021
Broncos with a two score lead over the Cowboys pic.twitter.com/v4P2gViNNK
I’m not a believer in “QB Wins” because there’s three sides to the ball, so I’m not about to argue for “WR wins,” but it’s worth mentioning that the Broncos are undefeated in games Jerry Jeudy plays this year. I don’t think think that’s nothing, because his ability to separate was a missing ingredient from the Broncos’ passing attack through most of October. The way Shurmur used him on motion today created a ton of conflicts for the Dallas secondary, and that’s something we should expect to see a lot of in the weeks ahead.
Some will complain about Sutton’s quiet day. I won’t. The Cowboys came into today ranked as the best team in football against opposing WR1s by Football Outsider’s DVOA metric. On top of that, the DPI he drew on Trevon Diggs helped to make a field goal drive end in six.
Trevon Diggs with the obvious DPI on Courtland Sutton pic.twitter.com/4heT7gfYAT— Joe Rowles (@JoRo_NFL) November 7, 2021
Young Broncos stepped up in a big way
At the end of the day, what made today’s victory so special is the fact that so many young players were key contributors along the way.
- Quinn Meinerz had to step in at right guard and looked solid, which is easier said than done for a career left guard.
- There were definitely mistakes made along the way, but Baron Browning’s range really helped the Broncos today.
- Kendall Hinton continues to show up on offense.
Teddy Bridgewater with a 41-yard checkdown to Kendall Hinton on 3rd and long pic.twitter.com/fjkX1ok8Ek— Joe Rowles (@JoRo_NFL) November 7, 2021
- Here’s hoping Patrick Surtain II is able to return to the lineup soon because he’s the Broncos best corner and a future All Pro.
- Jonathon Cooper had the tremendous task of stepping in as the Broncos best edge without Miller, Chubb, or Reed in the lineup. Against a good tackle in Terence Steele he was solid as a run defender and a constant nuisance as a pass rusher. After a couple of misses on Case Keenum, it was awesome to see him get his first NFL sack against Prescott.
Jonathon Cooper gets the first sack of his NFL career! pic.twitter.com/6kXfS9TyTo— Joe Rowles (@JoRo_NFL) November 7, 2021
Jonathon Cooper with a second sack on Dak Prescott.— Joe Rowles (@JoRo_NFL) November 7, 2021
2nd sack of his NFL career pic.twitter.com/VF6DCjeklc
- Caden Stern’s had one pick and should have had two, which speaks to his ability to read the quarterback.
- Then of course there was Javonte Williams, who made the most of his carries and continued to show off the elite contact balance that’s going to make him a Pro Bowl lock for years to come.
Javonte Williams with a 20 yard gain on 3rd down.— Joe Rowles (@JoRo_NFL) November 7, 2021
Broncos first down! pic.twitter.com/9YCBzQq91S
Final Thoughts (for now)
It’s wild how much a game can change perceptions. Like many in Broncos Country, there’s no denying the fact I was dubious when George Paton decided to hold onto all the Broncos’ key veterans outside of Von Miller at the NFL trade deadline. Barely 4-4 after one of the easiest schedules in the league, the Von-less Broncos looked dead in the water. After a 30-16 victory that never looked that close against arguably the best team on the 2021 schedule, the Broncos control their destiny.
The 5-4 Broncos remaining schedule— Joe Rowles (@JoRo_NFL) November 7, 2021
How many wins do you see here?