There is no question that the Dallas Cowboys team that lost 42-17 to the Denver Broncos on Sunday looked nothing like the outfit that went 13-3 last year and 1-0 to start this season behind a run-oriented, ball-control attack.
“We played the game they wanted us to play, not the game that we typically play,” coach Jason Garrett said.
The questions are why the Cowboys weren’t able to do it and whether the Broncos provided a blueprint on how to stop the Cowboys offense for the rest of the NFL.
Running back Ezekiel Elliott had a career-low 8 yards on nine carries a week after setting an NFL record with his 16th consecutive game of at least 80 yards.
Quarterback Dak Prescott passed for 238 yards on a career-high 50 attempts with two touchdowns and two interceptions. He was sacked twice and took several hits.
“Within each unit, everyone has a job to do on each and every play,” Garrett said. “In the running game, everybody has a role, everyone has a block to make, an assignment. Across the board, throughout that ballgame, we did not get the job done against these guys. We didn’t win up front enough, we didn’t win on the edges as blockers, they just did a good job defeating us and not allowing us to get the run game started, and similarly in the passing game.”
Let the Broncos tell it: They had the perfect antidote to solve the Cowboys offense that finished second in rushing and second in time of possession last year, when Prescott became the most efficient rookie quarterback in NFL history.
“Our plan was to clog every gap, play man-free outside with the corners and their receivers and clog every gap,” Broncos first-year head coach Vance Joseph said. “If (Elliott) did pop a run, it was going to be on a missed tackle. It wasn’t going to be on an open gap. We knew coming into the game that was going to be our first order of business, to stop the run and clog every gap. When they went three-wides and one back, we played our normal base front with our normal secondary.”
Garrett said the Broncos’ philosophy wasn’t anything the Cowboys haven’t faced before.
“Again, teams have been trying to stop the run against us for a while,” Garrett said. “They did a good job of that. We didn’t do a good enough job.
“But the idea that teams want to stop the run, that is not a new concept.”
How the Broncos pulled it off might be something other teams can’t duplicate because they don’t have Denver’s personnel, namely two Pro Bowl cornerbacks in the secondary such as Chris Harris Jr. and Aqib Talib to make up for the philosophy of selling out to stop the run.
“That’s part of how they play,” Garrett said. “The reason they are able to play the style of defense we are talking about. Having people up around the line of scrimmage. They really believe in their corners.”
Garrett said the Cowboys need to focus on fixing the issues that plagued them, especially in the running game. They have to be persistent with the run no matter what.
“I think you have to find ways to run against loaded boxes,” Garrett said. “We’ve had to do that for the last year. This isn’t the first time teams have said we’re going to take the run away.”