Want a quick hint about how dominant Denver has been on offense this season? Take a look at this:
That’s a pretty amazing chart considering those are the NFL’s top-scoring teams. Denver ranks first in passing yards and first in passing touchdowns.
Some, like Nick Eatman of Cowboys.com, want the Cowboys to run the ball in an effort to remain balanced.
But there’s another important reason Dallas might want to keep it on the ground more often than usual this week: they’re the underdog. Denver is actually favored by 7.5 points, even on the road, per FootballLocks.com. There’s really no doubt about the fact that the Broncos are the better football team.
So what’s the easiest way for an underdog to take down Peyton Manning’s Broncos? Shorten the game.
Generally, the Cowboys should try to maximize the number of offensive plays they run if they think they’re the best team. In this game, however, it should be the exact opposite; the ‘Boys are clearly inferior, so they must reduce the sample size of plays for the Broncos offense in an effort to maximize the randomness of the outcome.
The best way to beat Manning, then, is to keep him off the field—and a little luck wouldn't hurt either.
Here are some ways they can do that.
DO be ready for the pass early
The Broncos pass the ball early and often, but they particularly like to air it out on first down early on.
That graph is really telling of the game plans for both Dallas and Denver. While the Cowboys try to maintain first-down balance early on, the Broncos realize that their biggest advantage comes through beating defenses with the pass.
DON’T blitz Manning
The Cowboys will obviously need to mix up their looks against Manning, but in general, it might be best not to blitz him.
For one, it’s unlikely that Dallas is going to be able to fool the quarterback on a consistent basis. Last year, Manning totaled a 102.2 passer rating against the blitz. This year, he has posted a mark of 141.3.
The second reason to not blitz Manning is related to shortening the game. The Cowboys need to minimize the total number of drives the Broncos have, and blitzing probably won’t help that. If Manning is going to score his points anyway, you might as well make sure it takes him a while to do it.
DO use safety J.J. Wilcox more
Common sense says to go with an experienced safety against Manning, but Wilcox has shown that he’s a better cover safety than Will Allen.
Wilcox has allowed only 27 yards on five attempts (5.4 YPA), compared to 163 yards and two touchdowns on nine attempts (18.1 YPA) for Allen.
There’s always the risk of Wilcox blowing an assignment, but it probably doesn’t do Dallas much good to start a safety who won’t make a mental error if you know he’s going to get beat physically anyway.
DO force Manning out to his right
For whatever reason, Manning has always been dominant when throwing to his left.
This year, he’s completed 38 of his 48 passes to the left side of the field, totaling 487 yards (10.1 YPA), five touchdowns, and no picks. Last year, he was 128-for-168 for 1,470 yards (8.8 YPA), 13 touchdowns and no interceptions.
Dallas might want to overload the right side of their defense, especially when they blitz, to ensure that Manning has to go elsewhere with the football.
DON’T forget about wide receiver Eric Decker in the red zone
Despite his early season struggles, Decker is one of the league’s more underrated receivers.
He is 6’3’’ and 214 pounds with 4.5 speed. Dating back to his time at Minnesota, Decker has also been one of the premier red-zone threats in the game.
He’s had Manning throwing him passes over the past 20 games, but don’t forget that Decker was also catching passes from quarterback Tim Tebow for a while. He’s a big-time threat to Dallas in the red zone.
DO get the ball downfield
Whether it’s due to his own decision-making or something instilled by the coaches, as I wrote on Cowboys.com, quarterback Tony Romo isn’t taking enough chances.
He’s attempted only nine passes of 20 or more yards all season. Historically, Romo’s YPA has been very strongly correlated with his interception rate—as one has risen, so has the other.
Romo needs to strike a balance, as he did in 2009 and 2011, through which he can maintain high efficiency without being extraordinarily careless with the football.
No one is asking him to hit 8.0 YPA without throwing picks. He’s played at an elite level in the past, so he can do it now, but he’s got to open it up a bit.
DON’T ignore wide receiver Dez Bryant
This should just be obvious, right? It shouldn’t even need to be said that Bryant needs to see lots of passes. And yet here we are, again, with Bryant ranked outside of the top 15 in the NFL in targets among wide receivers (Cecil Shorts, Kenbrell Thompkins and Emmanuel Sanders all have more targets than Bryant).
Yes, defenses have played with a safety over top of Bryant at times, but who cares? There are ways to beat safety helped, as I’ve outlined in the past, but the Cowboys aren’t really trying anything.
Bryant has been quite efficient, but you don’t really need any numbers to know that he has to see the ball more.
DO run more play-action
Last year, the Cowboys ran a play-action passes on 10.0 percent of Romo’s dropbacks—the lowest rate in the NFL by a wide margin. This year, Romo ranks 30th at 12.8 percent.
That might be OK if play action wasn’t working, but Romo had a 109.1 passer rating on play-action passes in 2012, and it’s up to 129.0 in 2013. Lots of teams successfully utilize play action without an effective running game, and the Cowboys have been one of them.
How in the world does the team not realize that they have to show play fakes more frequently? Even if they think they need to get a running game going to “set up” play action, you’d think the rate would increase just because Romo’s been so efficient with it in the past.
DON’T double-team defensive end Shaun Phillips
Phillips is playing well right now, already accumulating 3.5 sacks on the season. However, he’s pressured the quarterback on only 6.5 percent of his pass-rushing snaps. There are four players on Phillips’ team alone with as many pressures and a higher pressure rate.
The Cowboys need to worry just as much about defensive end Robert Ayers, and even linebacker Wesley Woodyard. Woodyard is one of the best blitzing linebackers in the game, as he already has nine pressures and 1.5 sacks despite rushing the quarterback only 29 times this year. He could cause problems up the middle for the Cowboys’ interior line.
DO target cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie on double-moves
Using double-moves is one way the Cowboys can potentially get Bryant open against double-teams, especially when he’s matched up on Rodgers-Cromartie.
The double-named cornerback is playing quality football this year, but he’s always susceptible to giving up big plays because he takes so many chances. Romo needs to be careful when targeting Rodgers-Cromartie underneath, but the Cowboys could find some success by faking outs and slants to get him to bite up.
Of course, Romo will need to hang in the pocket to do that—something he hasn’t been too eager to do this season.
*All statistics courtesy of Pro Football Focus (subscription required), unless otherwise noted.