NFL Preview - Denver (4-0) at Dallas (2-2)
By Shawn Clarke, Contributing NFL Editor
(SportsNetwork.com) - There's no tiptoeing around the fact that Peyton Manning is shredding defenses at a torrid pace.
Coming off as a man who seemingly has cerebral intuition similar to "The Terminator," Manning and the 4-0 Denver Broncos are trying to stay unbeaten when they invade AT&T Stadium Sunday to take on the Dallas Cowboys.
Manning is off to a sizzling start, having thrown for 1,470 yards with 16 touchdown passes and no interceptions. The 16 TD passes are the most through the first four games of a season in NFL history. He is first in the NFL in passing yards, touchdowns, completion percentage (75.0), completions (117), quarterback rating (138.0) and passing yards per game (367.5). He has thrown three or more TD passes in a game three times already this season and torched the Philadelphia Eagles in Sunday's 52-20 win with 327 yards on 28-of-34 passing and four touchdowns.
The future Hall of Famer's 146.0 rating was his highest of the season so far and he has the Broncos first in total yards (483.0), passing yards (363.8), points per game (44.8) and touchdowns (23). Amazingly, Manning is on pace to throw more than 60 touchdown passes and for more than 5,000 yards. Manning's not getting too involved with the current run he's on.
"The recaps don't mean a whole lot," Manning said after carving up the Eagles. "It was a good win because it was this game and we'll learn from it and we have a tough test next week. When you play these NFC teams, especially with new defensive coordinators, they are tough to prepare for because you prepare for the short amount of film that is available and you have to be prepared for a lot of unexpected looks."
The Cowboys have a new defensive coordinator in Monte Kiffin, whose defense was shredded by Philip Rivers and the San Diego Chargers in Sunday's 30-21 loss on the west coast. Rivers passed for 401 yards and three touchdowns with one interception and the Chargers amassed 506 total yards.
Kiffin was asked about Manning coming to town.
"That's not good," Kiffin said. "Last time I checked, the quarterback ratings came out this week (and) number one was Manning. Guess who number two was? Rivers. We told our team that. We knew this was going to be a tough game. No doubt about it. He's a heck of a quarterback. He's playing better right now than back when he played three or four years ago. He can still play, and we told our defense that."
Manning has shown no effects of a balky neck from a few years ago and helped the Broncos outscore the Eagles 21-0 in the third quarter when it was a 21-13 game at halftime. The Broncos had a 214-20 advantage in yards during the quarter and have been outscoring opponents 59-14 in the third quarter and 76-38 in the second half this season. Manning completed 15-of-16 passes for 158 yards and three touchdowns for a passer rating of 147.4 in the stanza.
"I really don't know what it is. We come out in the second half, score fast and we put up points," Broncos wide receiver Demaryius Thomas said. "I don't know what it is. A spark or something. I have no idea."
Thomas had nine receptions for 86 yards and two touchdowns on Sunday, while Wes Welker caught seven passes for 76 yards and two scores. Eric Decker chipped in 88 yards on five catches for the Broncos, who are off to the best start since opening the 2009 season with six consecutive wins and set a franchise record with their 15th straight regular season win. Speaking of the regular season, Manning has thrown 201 passes in a row without an interception.
Meanwhile, the Cowboys could be in for a really long afternoon with the Broncos in town. The Broncos have scored an NFL-high 179 points, the second- highest output in a team's first four games in league annals behind the 1966 Cowboys (183 points). Denver is 39 points shy of setting the all-time record for the most points in a team's first five games.
Dallas ranks 27th in the league in pass defense (304.5 ypg) and has allowed an average of 382.2 total yards per game. It gave up 506 yards to Rivers and the Chargers and now an otherworldly Manning is next on the agenda. Cowboys head coach Jason Garrett is aware of how well Manning is playing this season.
"He's playing quarterback at maybe the highest level it's ever been played," Garrett said. "He's been doing it for 15 years. He's a fantastic player. His understanding of the game is second to none; his command is second to none. His ability to positively impact the people around him is second to none, and physically, he's awfully good. He throws it where he wants to over and over and over again. He throws it on time, is accurate, and has an ability to make a ton of big plays and make very few bad plays. So, he's playing as high a level as the game's ever been played."
So what does that say about Dallas' defense? The Cowboys must keep the ball out of Manning's hands, so running back DeMarco Murray will be an X-factor. As long as Murray and the offense can keep the clock moving and the Denver offense on the sidelines, there could be a chance for an upset. Dallas, though, only sacked Rivers once on Sunday. Manning has been sacked a total of five times this season, but only once in each of the past two games.
Cowboys stud linebacker DeMarcus Ware strained his lower back against San Diego and is expected to be ready for Sunday.
"I'm good. I'm fine," said Ware, who only had two tackles Sunday and leads the Cowboys with four sacks this season and 13 quarterback pressures.
Pressure is what the Cowboys must apply Sunday. Defensive end George Selvie had the lone sack on Rivers and owns three this season. Defensive tackle Jason Hatcher has been able to collapse the pocket with four sacks and linebacker Bruce Carter has two. Carter, though, struggled in coverage and veteran linebacker Ernie Sims saw some action.
"Bruce had some problems covering their guys," Garrett said. "Two of their touchdowns were scored with (Danny) Woodhead on him, and he didn't cover him that well, and there some other things going on in our other coverages that he didn't do a good enough job on."
Garrett said he wanted to give Sims some reps, especially in the nickel package, and that Carter was bothered by a foot issue that is not deemed serious. Garrett said he will continue to evaluate the situation throughout the week and give both players a chance to earn more playing time.
Not allowing the quarterback to get into a groove reflects strongly on the secondary, an area the Cowboys have struggled this season. They have just four interceptions this season, one each from Ware, defensive backs Will Allen and Brandon Carr and linebacker Sean Lee. Garrett was critical about cornerback Morris Claiborne, saying that he hasn't matured into a consistent player "within the game or from game to game."
Garrett will need Claiborne and the defensive backfield to sharpen their technique for what could be a track meet at AT&T Stadium.
Dallas has lost four in a row to the Broncos and is 5-6 in this series, including the playoffs. Denver posted a 17-10 home win in the previous meeting on Oct. 4, 2009 and last visited Big D in 2005, recording a 24-21 victory in overtime on Nov. 24.
WHAT TO WATCH FOR
So much has been said of Denver's offense the Cowboys seem to get swept under the rug. The Cowboys aren't blowing teams out like the Broncos have been and can still keep up with most offenses. They are ninth in points scored (26.0), 19th in both total yards (340.5) and rushing yards (102.2) and 21st in passing (238.2).
As mentioned earlier, Murray can be the best "defense" against Manning and the Broncos by moving the chains and getting behind a cohesive line. The o-line has to do its part Sunday or else Murray will be stranded. Murray, who had 175 yards and a touchdown on 26 carries in Week 3 versus St. Louis, compiled 70 yards on 14 carries against the Chargers.
Murray, who is averaging 4.9 yards per carry, will be facing the No. 1 rush defense, as the Broncos are holding opposing ground attacks to 74.0 yards per game. The Broncos, though, are giving up almost 400 yards per week (390.2) and sit third to last in pass defense (316.2). That's why it's important for Murray to set up Tony Romo and the pass, which is spearheaded by Dez Bryant (282 yards, 4 TD) and Jason Witten (192 yards, 2 TD).
Bryant had two TD receptions against the Chargers and has scored in each of the past three weeks. Eagles quarterback Michael Vick passed for 248 yards with no touchdowns or an interception and LeSean McCoy recorded an admirable 73 yards on 16 touches. Former Eagle Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie was able to take DeSean Jackson out of the game and posted two passes defensed. Bryant is much more physical than Jackson, so DRC will have to get an edge quickly at the line of scrimmage.
Witten is a few steps slower than in years past, but can still create mismatches in the middle of the defense. Broncos linebackers Nate Irving, Wesley Woodyard and Danny Trevathan did a nice job of taking away the middle of the field versus Philly and combined for 21 tackles last week. Trevathan led the team with 10 stops. Robert Ayers and Shaun Phillips both have 3 1/2 sacks this season, while Romo has been sacked nine times, including three against the Chargers.
It would be a shock to see Manning throw up a clunker on Sunday for how well the Broncos have been over the course of four weeks. He just seems to be in a zone of his own and actually needs 405 yards passing (60,957) to move ahead of Hall of Famer Dan Marino (61, 361) for second-most in NFL history. At this rate Manning may have that mark by the start of the fourth quarter.
Not that it's different any other week, but the Cowboys will be amped for this one and would enjoy knocking off one of the few unbeaten teams around the league. But Dallas has to extend drives, convert on third down and protect the football on offense. Tackling and putting pressure on Manning is imperative on defense because any edge given to the QB machine is a possible six points. The Cowboys should keep this one close in their third loss of the season.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Broncos 30, Cowboys 24
10/03 14:55:46 ET