This has to be the week that the Denver Broncos’ ridiculous streak of 15 consecutive regular season wins by at least 7 points comes to an end, right? Their opponents, the Dallas Cowboys, are a talented team with 10 players in the Top 10 of their respective positions in our overall cumulative ratings. The Cowboys are undefeated at home, where both of their wins have come this season. They don’t let opposing offenses beat them through penalties, ranking third in this category in our cumulative defensive grades. Furthermore, Denver’s list of key inactives could finally rear its ugly head, with Von Miller, Ryan Clady and perhaps Champ Bailey still on the sidelines (not to mention a banged-up Danny Trevathan, our highest-graded 4-3 OLB against the run.) Though the Broncos will still be favored to win, let’s take a look at three key areas that could affect the outcome.
Peyton Manning vs. Morris Claiborne and Bruce Carter
The primary reason Denver remains at the top of our Power Rankings for the third straight week is Peyton Manning. The former Super Bowl MVP currently leads the league in PFF QB Rating (115.12) and Accuracy Percentage (85.1), just ahead of the signal-caller that tormented the Cowboys last week, San Diego’s Philip Rivers. One of Manning’s keys to success is his willingness to spread the ball around to the player with the most favorable matchup and attack a defense’s weakness. Demaryius Thomas, Wes Welker and Eric Decker have all been targeted 35 to 37 times, with Julius Thomas (our fourth-rated tight end at +5.3) not far behind at 24 targets. Each of these players has allowed their quarterback to post at least a 109.2 QB rating when they are thrown at.
Look for Manning to focus early and often on whomever is being covered by OLB Bruce Carter and CB Morris Claiborne. There’s a reason why quarterbacks have targeted Carter about twice as much as they have linebacker Sean Lee, even though Carter has participated in 12 less coverage snaps. The second-worse pass coverage grade for a 4-3 OLB of -4.1 is a prime one, which includes a team-high four missed tackles in coverage. Not to be outdone is Claiborne, who is also second from the bottom in coverage grading at his position. Playing almost exclusively at right cornerback, Claiborne has given up 131 yards after the catch on 15 receptions, both team highs for defensive backs. Given that Rivers targeted these two Cowboys more than any other last week with great success (a total of 15 receptions and two TDs on 17 targets), expect more of the same from Manning.
Dez Bryant vs. Broncos Cornerbacks
After a slow start to the season by his standards, Dez Bryant graded in the green in receiving for the third consecutive week. Bryant’s sure hands (second-lowest WR Drop Rate at 4.17) and nose for the end zone (tied for third in WR TDs) are two reasons why Tony Romo has a 128.5 passer rating when throwing to his No. 1 wideout. Romo has found the most success targeting Bryant on in-routes and go-routes, where he has scored all four of his receiving touchdowns.
The Broncos, as with many teams, don’t use one cornerback to shadow the other team’s best receiver. Don’t look for this to change even if Champ returns for his first action of the season. We’ll focus on Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and Tony Carter since Bryant has only one target in the slot and that’s typically Chris Harris’ territory (where opposing quarterbacks have just a 43.5 passer rating, second-best in the NFL). Through four games, Rodgers-Cromartie has resembled the player from 2009 when he made our Page of Fame with one of the best seasons we’ve seen from a cornerback in our five years of grading. His size, athletic ability and instincts have allowed him to limit quarterbacks to just a 5.2 passer rating on go-routes this year. Similarly, Carter has used his speed and instincts to hold opposing QBs to a 7.7 passer rating on these streak routes even though no Broncos defensive back has been targeted more times on a particular pattern. Therefore, don’t be surprised to see Romo feed Bryant on plenty of in-routes this Sunday.
Broncos Third Phase
Let’s say the Cowboys become the fifth team this season to put up at least 20 points on the Von-less Broncos defense and they happen to catch Manning on an off day (good luck with that). Game over, right? Ahh, but that’s where Denver’s dominant special teams could ruin the day. Led by PFF Team of the Month honorees Trindon Holliday and David Bruton, Denver is easily our top special teams unit through four games at +43.6, with Seattle a distant second at +26.6. Second-year undrafted free agent linebacker Steven Johnson also received accolades in our most recent Third Phase series with his standout performance in Week 4. Even kickers Britton Colquitt (seventh in punter ratings) and Matt Prater (fourth in FG/EP grading) appear to be justifying their contract extensions.
Holliday in particular will be a Broncos special teamer to focus on. The former NCAA track champion has an amazing four touchdowns in his last 22 returns. Dan Bailey’s 17 touchbacks are tied for fourth in the league, so the Cowboys should feel somewhat comfortable in that area. But, Chris Jones has graded as our second-worst punter thus far at -3.2 and is allowing 57.9% of his punts to be returned, the fourth-highest rate in the league. If Dallas can’t limit Holliday’s return touches, he and the rest of his “special” teammates could be the difference in the game.