FRISCO, Texas – Here are my two main keys to Sunday's game against the Denver Broncos:
Dallas Cowboys Win If:
The Broncos came into their game against the Chargers with a battered front seven, and that led to concerns in dealing with Melvin Gordon. The defense caught a break when their offense was able to build a lead and take the Chargers out of their running game.
For as strong as the Broncos have been defensively over the years, their run defense was atrocious in 2016 and they worked this offseason to address it. They asked their returning defensive linemen to add 15-to-20 pounds of bulk. They also added two 330-pounders in Domata Peko and Zack Kerr in free agency to try and improve the size, as well.
How bad was their run defense? Opponents ran the ball 55 percent of the time on first down. Of those first down runs, they averaged 4-plus yards, 44 percent of the time. What was even more alarming for the defense was opponents had 13 rushing attempts for 20-plus yards, which ranked them 26th in the league.
For the Cowboys to win this game, they're going to have to rely on their strength, and that's running the football. Last week against a stout Giants front seven, they were able to find some traction. The yards were tough but Scott Linehan was patient and he stuck with the running game.
It's really two-fold for Linehan -- keep his own defense off the field and limit their exposure. More importantly, I think they need to wear this Broncos defense down and kill their ability to rush the passer, which is their strength.
Denver Broncos Win If:
For the Broncos to win this game, they're going to have to lean on their defense. As many weapons as they have on offense, I could see them struggling to score points -- especially with the limited possessions.
Dallas will try and control the ball with the running game, which is their strength. If they have success chewing up yards and the clock, then the Broncos are in trouble. The Broncos have to come up with a plan to limit the Cowboys' ability to hold the ball from them. They will need to force the Cowboys into a pass-only attack and play to their strength, which is getting after the quarterback.
Their numbers defensively are strong in every category when it comes to possession. In 2016, they were one of the best in the league when it came to getting opponents off the field. On 25 percent of opposing possessions, they were able to force a three-and-out. And to be honest, it didn't matter what down they faced. The Broncos, defensively, were able to come up with plays. If opponents did not attempt a run on first down and went with the option of passing, they were held to four yards or less passing on 45 percent of those snaps.
What was even more impressive about their defense was that on only 28 percent of their snaps, were opponents able to convert that down into a first down. This brings us to third down, when opponents are likely to throw. The Broncos are top three in the league sacking the quarterback and top five on those third down snaps, holding opponents to just 36 percent . Make Dak Prescott one-dimensional and they win this game.