The Broncos and their defense walked into Dallas and held the ball for twice as long as the Cowboys did, racked up four sacks, seven pass breakups, and humbled what was supposed to be one of the best offenses in the league. While Denver didn’t run anything revolutionary, they continued to adapt through the game and pivot as Dallas tried to get things going on offense. Of course, they were also helped by a couple drops and terrible throws by Dak Prescott, but the fact remains that Dallas didn’t score until there was under six minutes to go in the game.
To start off the game, the Broncos ran Cover 1. That takes some stones to do against a very talented Cowboys skill group.
The Broncos stayed in Nickel personnel a lot of the game and were still able to matchup with the heavy personnel of the Cowboys in the run game. Normally, you see Denver in a lot of two-safety shells but against Dallas, they brought an extra defender into the box and were still able to hold up in pass defense.
Justin Simmons was all over the field. He protected deep and also got in on run fits to stop Ezekiel Elliott and Tony Pollard.
While the Broncos defense started with lots of man coverage, the Cowboys quickly caught on and started to get to some condensed formations and run rub routes to spring their receivers open. Here, they’re working to get Amari Cooper running across the field with Patrick Surtain having to chase him and navigate traffic. That allows Cooper to use the natural rubs of the routes from the other side of the field for a run after catch opportunity.
Switch to zone coverage
When the Cowboys got to their stack formations, Denver was content to play zone and bracket those receivers with square coverage to prevent any rubs. Even with Dallas rotating their players to try and get a better matchup, Denver is still in a good position. They’ve got four defenders on the Cowboys’ three receivers. The two underneath defenders take the first receiver to go in and the first receiver to go out. The two deeper defenders take whichever receiver is deep in or deep out. That way they have everyone accounted for and aren’t susceptible to any rubs. Even though that gave the Cowboys leverage, the Broncos pressure was able to get home and force Dak out of the pocket.
With two in-breaking routes, the inside defender is taking the shorter of the two routes. That leaves Justin Simmons at safety to pick up the deeper in-breaker. However, that now isolates Patrick Surtain and Kyle Fuller. With the third receiver releasing deep and stemming to the outside, that means Surtain has to attach to him in coverage. However, that receiver is breaking back inside and the Cowboys are overloading that bracket coverage with the previous two in-breakers taking away the defenders inside. It’s good play-design and understanding of how the Broncos are adapting, but Dak isn’t able to hang in the pocket long enough to hit Dalton Shultz over the middle.
Stopping the run with Nickel
The next adjustment from the Cowboys was to attack the Nickel package of the Broncos defense by bringing in more heavy personnel. They also ran more condensed formations to force those smaller defenders to have to fill and contribute in the run game. When the Cowboys ran strong, they usually had some success, but they couldn’t consistently stay on schedule in the run game and got away from it early in the game. The Cowboys only ran the ball two times in the second half before their last two touchdown drives during garbage time at the end of the 4th quarter.
Whenever Dallas tried to run weak – despite having numbers and a size advantage to the strength – they didn’t have much success. The smaller personnel of the Broncos was still able to contain the Dallas run game.
The Cowboys did not do enough to get the Broncos out of their Nickel packages. However, Denver did get out of their man coverage after Dallas started to run more rub routes from across the field. An adjustment that came too little too late was the Cowboys getting into more spread formations. Those formations got the Broncos into their base Cover 4 look. The Cowboys were then able to overload the flats and create opportunities for their guys to make plays.
Changing coverages vs. Spread
Once Dallas started to attack with their spread formations, Fangio and the Denver defense started to throw in some post-snap adjustments and different looks. Those took away the overloads that the Cowboys were trying to create.
The Cowboys are running two cross routes and a dig behind them. That’s supposed to clear the deep defenders across the field while the linebackers carry or jump the underneath drag. However, the Broncos are manning up to the single receiver at the bottom, which allows the linebackers to play less aggressively to the drag coming across. Dak sees the weak-side safety come down to protect the first Cross and that the slot defender is also running deep with the #2 receiver. That tells Prescott that he’ll have the dig clearing in behind them. However, the linebacker is able to carry the #2 receiver and widen out to protect the dig window. Dak never sees him and it’s an interception for the Broncos which put a dagger in any hopes the Cowboys had of making a comeback.
The Cowboys had numerous drops, Dak missed some big throws, and the Broncos had a number of pass break ups at the catch point. Dallas might have beat itself in some ways, but the Broncos defense made them earn every yard. Dallas couldn’t get the run game going and allowed Denver to mix coverages and force the Cowboys into bad spots.
The Broncos might have had a slump over the last month or so, but they’re right in the thick of things in their division. When Denver can control the ball on offense and play good defense, they’re going to be a tough out for anyone that overlooks them.