In a universe where certain timelines crossed, the ideal Dallas Cowboys–Denver Broncos encounter during this era would not be Sunday.
A best-versus-best clash capable of producing an all-time trench matchup would have come had last season’s Cowboys faced the 2015 Broncos, the Super Bowl champions whose defense soared into the all-time discussion.
But in a world where it took five years for Floyd Mayweather Jr. to agree to fight Manny Pacquiao, rarely do optimal versions of matchups occur.
However, many components that made these units the best in the NFL at those points in time remain in place for Sunday’s Week 2 tilt.
Von Miller still powers the Broncos’ front seven, and Derek Wolfe and Brandon Marshall are in the upper-echelon conversation at their respective spots. The Cowboys will bring three first-team All-Pros — Tyron Smith, Travis Frederick, Zack Martin — to Denver after losing quality guard Ron Leary to the Broncos. They’ll also bring Ezekiel Elliott. He’s good too.
What could be the decisive factor in who wins this inside battle, and perhaps the game: the Cowboys have more of what made their all-world ground attack thrive last season.
Miller — and starting cornerbacks Chris Harris and Aqib Talib — are the stalwarts primarily responsible for elevating the Broncos’ Super Bowl defense to the stratospheric place it reached. But many supporting-casters from that front seven are no longer around, and Denver’s 2016 run defense ranked 28th as a result.
Malik Jackson, DeMarcus Ware and Danny Trevathan were essential complementary pieces. The Broncos couldn’t be expected to find replacements on their respective levels given the investments put forth and players currently available. (Shane Ray’s absence weakens the Broncos as well, for depth purposes at the very least.)
Denver couldn’t replace Jackson last season, and while Shaquil Barrett played well Monday night and has room to grow, a discussion comparing him and 2015 DeMarcus Ware is a non-starter. A pre-ACL-tear Vance Walker also played a key role off the bench for the ’15 Broncos, while the Wolfe-Jackson tandem provided a constant inside pass rush to supplement Miller’s and Ware’s edge attacks.
There are still ways for the Broncos to emulate their peak stretch at times, but they’re probably farther away from that point than the Cowboys.
Last season’s Dallas offensive line helped Elliott and Dak Prescott to two of the greatest rookie seasons in NFL history. Elliott was a better version of DeMarco Murray, the beneficiary of the first dominant version of Dallas’s line years before. Both centerpieces of Dallas’s 13-3 season are back while Elliott’s suspension remains delayed. It’s hard to say the Cowboys don’t have the advantage between the tackles.
While the Broncos have the edge when Prescott throws, with Harris and Talib making shallow-league fantasy owners legitimately question a Dez Bryant play, the first Denver-Dallas meeting since that Peyton Manning-Tony Romo shootout figures to give the Broncos’ defensive line and linebackers difficulties.
The 2015 Broncos thwarted the Carolina Panthers’ diverse run scheme rather easily, but the closest their successors came to facing a line like the Cowboys’ did not go well. The Oakland Raiders bludgeoned the Broncos for 218 rushing yards in the rivals’ Bay Area meeting; their O-line, mostly comprised of well-performing free-agent mercenaries, won at the point of attack to further hamper the Broncos’ AFC West title defense.
Denver’s undermanned front did wall off Melvin Gordon for most of the game on Monday night, holding the Los Angeles Chargers’ starter to 3.0 yards per carry. Doing so without key rotation cogs Zach Kerr and Jared Crick, the latter now on injured reserve, was particularly surprising. Adam Gotsis, a 2016 second-rounder who did not factor in much last season, played his best game as a pro and looks like a vital piece of the Jackson replacement coalition. Shelby Harris also has been a welcome surprise for a Bronco defensive line that could use them.
The Cowboys are weakened at left guard and right tackle, where Leary and since-retired Doug Free resided. Miller has a favorable matchup with La’el Collins, but this attack is still a few notches above the Chargers’ line.
The Broncos usually move their top chess piece around the formation, but it would make sense to have Miller — sackless in the past five games — rush against Collins in an attempt to avoid Smith but disrupt Prescott’s timing in what should be one of the second-year quarterback’s toughest games to date.
That said, the Cowboys should still be able to dictate pace. Even without Free and Leary, the Cowboys will bring a rich man’s version of the Raiders’ ground game that gave the Broncos trouble last year. (Denver’s home rout of the Raiders in Week 17 isn’t as relevant, for obvious reasons.)
There will be a lot of talent on display when viewers observe replays and see how these units match up, but the Broncos are not on the level they were two seasons ago. The Cowboys are much closer, a big problem for a defense whose best facet can be marginalized by a strong ground attack. By running and focusing on passes to inside receivers and tight ends, a few teams executed their offense with great success against Denver last season.
The Cowboys might possess the NFL’s best example of this approach, putting the Broncos at risk of not starting 2-0 for the first time since 2012.
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