Game Overview ::
By hilow >>
- Dak Prescott is expected to return, while Michael Gallup is currently expected to miss his seventh straight game with a calf strain.
- Noah Fant popped on the COVID list with a positive test on Tuesday and will need to return two negative tests spaced at least 24 hours apart in order to play; from what we’ve seen this season via the league’s COVID protocols, consider him closer to doubtful at this time.
- The Broncos lead the league in situation-neutral pass rates over the previous four weeks and get an extreme pace-up matchup here.
- Denver has allowed the second-fewest points per game this season, but hold up a minute, check who they have played thus far (we’ll do this below).
How denver Will Try To Win ::
The Broncos would like to slow the game down (29th ranked situation-neutral pace of play over the first half of the season), but contrary to popular belief, they are more than capable and more than willing to turn things heavily towards the air if forced to do so. Their situation-neutral pass rates over the full season sit at a 12th ranked 62%, but their situation-neutral pass rate since Week 4 leads the league at 68%. During that time, they have trailed for the majority of the game against Baltimore, trailed for most of the game against Pittsburgh, trailed for most of the game against Las Vegas, trailed for most of the game against the Browns (scored twice in the second half to lose 17-14), and escaped with a narrow 17-10 win over Washington. Although their pace of play when trailing by seven or more points ranks 21st in the league at 27.55 seconds per play, it marks an over six-second increase in pace from their situation-neutral value of 33.70 seconds per play. What does this all mean? Well, it means the Broncos can and will open things up if forced to do so. Against the Cowboys, the likeliest scenario leads to a situation where they should be forced to do so.
The backfield situation continues to be a 60/40 split in snap rate between Melvin Gordon III and rookie Javonte Williams. That said, each holds exactly 49 running back opportunities over the previous four games, with both typically landing in the eight to 13 opportunity range. Basically, an already low-volume run game is split almost evenly, leaving only a thin chance at a GPP worthy score for either. The matchup on the ground yields a below-average 4.22 net-adjusted line yards metric, which I highlighted here not as a vote of confidence for this run game, but as a reminder of the likeliest plan of attack for the Broncos against a pass-funnel Cowboys defense.
The passing game is likely to be missing one of its key contributors after Noah Fant popped on the COVID list on Tuesday. While possible he makes it back in time for Sunday, he will need to provide two negative tests spaced at least 24 hours apart in order to play this weekend. This leaves the primary pass-catching duties to Courtland Sutton, Tim Patrick, Jerry Jeudy, and backup tight end Albert Okwuegbunam (don’t ask me to spell that again!) should Fant miss. Sutton and Patrick should be considered the near every-down wide receivers and Jeudy should see snaps close to 70% (Denver have played from 11-personnel at a 61% clip thus far, which is likely to see a slight uptick with the return of Jeudy). Jeudy’s heavy slot snap rate means he should largely avoid standout corner Trevon Diggs, assuming he plays (forced from last week’s contest late in the fourth with an ankle injury – already practiced in full on Wednesday). Diggs has gained widespread media attention for his seven interceptions on the season, but this dude is quickly becoming one of the premier lockdown corners in the NFL. After his string of six consecutive games with an interception, he shut down Justin Jefferson in Week 8. He has allowed only 19 of 42 passes thrown into his primary coverage to be completed, with the aforementioned seven interceptions to only two touchdowns allowed. This kid is #good. Finally, Albert O should step into the near every-down snap rate left behind with the (likely) absence of Noah Fant.
How dallas Will Try To Win ::
Dallas has continued their altered approach over the previous four weeks of play, with a fast pace (fifth fastest situation-neutral pace of play and third fastest with the score within six points) and elevated rush rates now being their new calling card (54% previous four games, 55% on the season). After the injury to Michael Gallup, we’ve seen this team transition to a heavy 12-personnel base offense, running the third-highest rate of 12 in the league behind only Atlanta and Miami. With this in mind, the injury status of Blake Jarwin becomes highly pertinent to how we think this team approaches this game. Keep an eye on his status as the week progresses, as he missed practice on Wednesday with a hip injury. His absence would likely open up additional offensive snaps for Cedric Wilson and Noah Brown.
The backfield split between Ezekiel Elliott and Tony Pollard remains heavily weighted in Zeke’s favor, who has played 70% or more of the offensive snaps in every game but one this season. Zeke has seen between 21 and 26 running back opportunities in each of the last four games played, compared to between eight and 18 opportunities for Pollard over that same time. This gives us a good idea of the top-end on Zeke’s expected workload here, with most game scenarios leading to a hard cap on his opportunities due to the presence of Pollard. The matchup yields an elite 4.87 net-adjusted line yards metric on the backs of the top-rated run-blocking unit in the league. Tyron Smith, one of the league’s top-rated tackles, appears likely to miss this contest. A large part of the moderate 4.23 yards allowed per rush to opposing running backs from this Denver defense is simply due to the level of competition they have faced this season (their adjusted line yards allowed metric is a below-average 4.56).
Through the air, Amari Cooper and CeeDee Lamb should be considered co-WR1s on this offense, with Cedrick Wilson the acting WR3 (typical snap rates between 50-60%) and Noah Brown handling primarily spread package duties. Tight end Dalton Schultz has been operating a notch below every-down duties, while Blake Jarwin has typically seen 40-55% of the offensive snaps. Should Jarwin miss here, we could see increased 11-personnel or we could see Jeremy Sprinkle step into Jarwin’s workload, with no clear indication either way. To me, the answer likely lies somewhere in the middle, with increased 11-personnel and Sprinkle in 12 packages. The matchup against Denver’s heavy zone, prevent defense tilts expected production to the short-intermediate areas of the field, particularly considering the high level of play of the safeties to this point. Cornerbacks Bryce Callahan and Ronald Darby have been absolutely torched this season (Darby has been targeted 26 times in just four games played, allowing a 65.4% completion rate and 256 yards in his primary coverage). It is clear the path of least resistance is away from standout rookie Patrick Surtain II, which tilts expected volume slightly in favor of CeeDee Lamb and Cedrick Wilson.
Likeliest Game Flow ::
It is likeliest we see the Cowboys dictate the pace, flow, and game environment overall here against a Broncos team that has continually started games slowly this season on offense (and assuming Dak Prescott returns to the lineup). The main thing that could derail this likeliest game flow would be the Denver defense buckling down in the red zone, as they have done all season, having surrendered the second-fewest points per game at only 17.1 and allowing a touchdown on only 50% of opposing red zone trips. Although less likely against a Dallas team with Dak back at the helm, this would throw enough of a wrench in the game environment as a whole so it bears mention here. That said, when we look at who the Broncos have played (and how many points they’ve allowed to those opponents), we start to get a clearer sense of just how good (or not as good) this defense really is. They started the season allowing only 13 points to the Giants, then 13 points to the Jaguars, then a shutout against the Jets, before allowing 23, 27, and 34 points to the Ravens, Steelers, and Raiders, before then playing the slow-paced Browns (17) and a reeling Washington team (10). The Broncos also lost linebacker Von Miller to the Rams via trade this week. All of that is to say, this defense can be broken against solid offenses, which is very much the case here against the Cowboys. When all is said and done, it is likeliest we see the Cowboys hit first and hit hard, forcing the Broncos into the all too familiar catchup mode, increasing their aerial aggression along the way.