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What Can Be Learned From Denver's Game Plan?


FRISCO, Texas – Frustrated as they might have been by Denver's approach on Sunday, the Cowboys had better be prepared to see it again.

As offensive coordinator Kellen Moore has said on numerous occasions, concepts that work tend to get used again in the NFL – for better and for worse.

"We want to dig everything piece of this thing, because obviously it's a copycat league," Moore said Monday. "Everyone is going to copy that formula, so you'd better have an answer for every single thing that came up in that game. You're bound to see it in the coming weeks."

It's one of the most overused tropes in the football world – finding the blueprint to defeat a team. Phrases like that tend to become tropes because there's some element of truth to them, however. And when the Broncos' own head coach leans into them, the narrative takes a life of its own.

"We just have to do it the right way, call it the right way, which I'm in charge of so you know that that's going to be taken care of," said Denver coach Vic Fangio on Sunday. "And I just felt OK about it. I want to say good about it. Teams just haven't played them the right way."

McCarthy smirked when that quote was relayed to him on Monday evening.

"Vic played us very aggressive. That's good to hear him beating his own drum," he said.

The Broncos are unlikely to give away their secrets completely, but the idea is there for anyone to watch. According to ESPN Stats & Info and Next Gen Stats, Denver only blitzed Dak Prescott on just 14% of his dropbacks – the lowest rate he's seen this season.

Instead, Fangio preferred to drop bodies into coverage in an effort to make life as confusing as possible for Prescott, who was also under duress thanks to an impressive effort from the Broncos' pass rush.

As McCarthy noted several times, the Broncos played a lot of man-match defense – which essentially amounts to disguising the coverage and moving different defenders between man and zone during the course of the play. On any given snap, a Denver defender could have switched his assignment from man to zone, or passed his responsibility off to another player's coverage area, based strictly on the look they were seeing from the Dallas offense.

"They do a great job of passing it off, probably one of the better teams that we'll see all year doing that," he said. "When you have opportunities where they run through, the coverage out the back end, it's sometimes where the ball should go."

It' a flummoxing style of defense that requires a lot of precision and a lot of communication, but can obviously be effective given Prescott's passing effort – a mere 19-of-39 for 232 yards, with his two touchdowns coming long after the outcome had been settled.

Asked about it Sunday evening, Prescott sounded defiant. Rather than the thought of being figured out, he focused instead on the extensive list of miscues on the Cowboys' end of things.

"I hope teams play us like this for the rest of the year, to be honest," he said. "This was just not a great game by us, this wasn't who we normally are, and as I said, we're going to learn from it."

The obvious parallel has already been drawn to the Los Angeles Chargers, who had held the Cowboys to just 20 points back in Week 2 – their lowest total of Prescott's starts prior to Sunday. Chargers coach Brandon Staley is a big branch on Fangio's coaching tree, having worked under him for two years in Chicago and one year in Denver.

The Chargers' scheme under Staley certainly isn't identical to what Denver did on Sunday. But to Prescott's point, the Cowboys had just seven true possessions in that Week 2 matchup and compiled 378 yards, highlighted by a 198-yard performance on the ground.

There's probably no such thing as a true "blueprint," but the Cowboys are confident their upcoming opponents will borrow from a game plan that worked so well this weekend.

"We are going to see those things from Atlanta, Kansas City, Vegas," Moore reiterated. "All those teams coming up. So we better have a plan for all things that came up in that game."

It remains to be seen if they'll handle it better next time. But presented with the thought that anyone can slow the Cowboys down using the Broncos' game plan, McCarthy agreed with his quarterback's assessment – he hopes they try.

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