By Scott Garbarini, Associate NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - Through the first three weeks of this 2009 NFL season, the new-and-improved Denver Broncos defense has passed every test thrown its way with flying colors. The revamped outfit will now prepare for what should be its sternest challenge to date when the high-powered Dallas Cowboys invade Invesco Field at Mile High this Sunday for an intriguing interconference matchup.
After fielding one of the league's most porous stop units a year ago, the Broncos underwent a major offseason overhaul that included the hiring of former San Francisco 49ers head coach Mike Nolan as defensive coordinator and a switch to a more aggressive 3-4 scheme. The results have been astounding so far, as Denver has yielded a scant 16 points and an NFL-low 214.7 yards per game over the course of its initial three contests.
Critics will be quick to point out that two of the Broncos' early-season opponents have been Cleveland and Oakland, a pair of teams with major quarterback issues and poor offensive outputs. The Cowboys, who were a last- second loss away from making Sunday's showdown a clash of unbeatens, figure to provide a better indicator of how far Nolan's group really has come.
Dallas boasts the league's top rushing attack at nearly 194 yards per game and ranks third overall in total offense (429.7 ypg), and showed off its enviable balance on that side of the ball in last Monday's impressive 21-7 victory over Carolina. The Cowboys piled up 212 yards on the ground despite not having the services of primary ball carrier Marion Barber, with quarterback Tony Romo complementing the running game nicely with 255 passing yards in a turnover- free effort.
The Cowboys are hopeful that Barber, who amassed 124 yards on only 18 attempts in the club's frustrating 33-31 Week 2 loss to the New York Giants before exiting with a strained quadriceps, will be able to return for Sunday's tilt. Backfield mate Felix Jones, however, won't be suiting up against Denver after the dazzling sophomore sprained a knee ligament in the Carolina game.
The Broncos showed they can run the ball a little bit as well in this past weekend's 23-3 road rout of the rival Oakland Raiders, with the duo of Correll Buckhalter and promising rookie Knowshon Moreno combining for 198 yards and a touchdown to help Denver improve to 3-0 under first-year head coach Josh McDaniels. The Broncos are averaging a solid 158.7 rushing yards per week in addition to receiving efficient play from the overlooked Kyle Orton under center. The ex-Chicago Bears signal-caller has yet to commit a turnover in his three starts since replacing the departed Jay Cutler in an offseason trade.
Denver will be attempting to win its first four games of a season for the first time since 2003, a year in which the team finished 10-6 and made the AFC Playoffs as a Wild Card.
The Broncos have a 5-4 edge in their all-time regular season series with the Cowboys, breaking a deadlock in the series with a 24-21 overtime victory on Thanksgiving Day 2005 at Texas Stadium. Dallas was a 42-23 loser when it last visited Denver in 1998, and is 0-3 against Denver overall since beating the Broncos at home in 1995. The Cowboys last won in Denver in 1992.
In addition to the regular season series, the teams have met once in the postseason, with the Cowboys earning a 27-10 win over the Broncos in Super Bowl XII from New Orleans.
The Cowboys' Wade Phillips, who served as Denver's head coach for two seasons (1993-94), will be facing his one-time employer for the first time as a head man. McDaniels will take on both Phillips and Dallas for the first time as a head coach.
WHEN THE COWBOYS HAVE THE BALL
Dallas possesses the best depth at the running back position of any team in football, and that was evident in Monday's win over the Panthers. Jones (212 rushing yards, 1 TD) and capable reserve Tashard Choice (100 rushing yards, 1 TD, 7 receptions) made Barber's absence a non-issue, with the former gaining an eye-opening 94 yards on just eight carries before being forced to exit and Choice slicing his way to 82 yards and a touchdown on 18 totes. Barber (203 rushing yards, 2 TD, 2 receptions) looks like a good bet to be active on Sunday, but don't be surprised if the physical fifth-year pro defers to a supporting role in favor of the healthier Choice. Romo (735 passing yards, 4 TD, 3 INT) rebounded well from a rough three-interception performance against the Giants to complete 22-of-35 passes versus Carolina, nine of which landed in the sure hands of All-Pro tight end Jason Witten (19 receptions, 1 TD). Starting wide receivers Roy Williams (8 receptions, 1 TD) and Patrick Crayton (8 receptions, 1 TD) have each made some big plays during the early portion of this season, though neither has the ability to stretch a defense the way Terrell Owens did during his tumultuous three-year tenure with the Cowboys.
The Broncos enter Sunday's battle having surrendered the second-fewest passing yards in the league (136.5 ypg), although that high ranking probably has been aided by facing Cleveland's Brady Quinn and Raiders bust JaMarcus Russell over the past two weeks. Still, Denver is the only team not to allow a passing touchdown this year and has garnered five interceptions in three games. More importantly, the team has racked up 10 sacks in the early going, six of which have come from fleet-footed outside linebacker Elvis Dumervil (14 tackles, 2 PD). The relentless edge rusher's accomplishments have further aided a strong secondary that features two quality cornerbacks in eight-time Pro Bowl honoree Champ Bailey (12 tackles, 2 PD) and free-agent pickup Andre Goodman (4 tackles, 1 INT, 2 PD), as well as an impact free safety in 14th-year veteran Brian Dawkins (20 tackles, 2 PD). The defense has been stout against the run as well, having given up a meager 78.3 rushing yards per game, and the offseason additions of Dawkins and inside linebacker Andra Davis (22 tackles, 1 sack) have made a difference in an area that was a real weak spot in 2008.
WHEN THE BRONCOS HAVE THE BALL
While its defense has been grabbing the headlines, Denver has quietly been pretty effective moving the football so far in the McDaniels era. Moreno (184 rushing yards, 1 TD, 2 receptions) is showing himself to be quite a useful runner between the tackles, while Buckhalter (230 rushing yards, 1 TD, 3 receptions) has averaged a sizzling 7.4 yards per carry as a change-of-pace option. The two backs work behind a very good offensive line that's also lent strong protection for Orton (663 passing yards, 3 TD), who's been sacked only three times in three games. The new Bronco quarterback has the label of a game manager, but he did throw for over 240 yards in each of the team's first two wins and has the benefit of a deep receiving corps that got a long-awaited boost from the enigmatic Brandon Marshall (12 receptions, 1 TD) last weekend. After getting off to a slow start and failing to endear himself to the new coaching staff with some immature antics, the Pro Bowl wideout posted season- bests of five catches and 67 yards along with his first touchdown of 2009 against the Raiders. Veteran slotman Brandon Stokley (6 receptions), who plays the Wes Welker role in the system McDaniels brought over from the Patriots, was used sparingly last week due to a thigh injury but should be more involved in Sunday's game plan.
The Cowboys can be difficult to run on, as both the Giants and the Panthers have found out in recent weeks. A sturdy front seven headed up by playmaking nose tackle Jay Ratliff (7 tackles, 1 sack) and inside linebackers Bradie James (18 tackles) and Keith Brooking (17 tackles, 2 PD) held both opponents -- two of the league's premier rushing teams a year ago -- under 100 yards on the ground. The defense has had its struggles in coverage at times, though, having permitted an unhealthy average of 268 passing yards per game (27th overall) thus far. The secondary was able to keep Carolina star receiver Steve Smith squarely in check one week after being shredded for 330 yards by New York's Eli Manning, with cornerback Terence Newman (18 tackles, 1 INT, 2 PD) putting the final touches on Monday's win with a late interception return for a touchdown. Game-changing outside linebacker DeMarcus Ware (12 tackles, 3 PD), the NFL's leader with 20 sacks in 2008, has yet to get one this year, but rookie reserve Victor Butler (5 tackles) had two quarterback takedowns and a forced fumble in last week's triumph. In one of Sunday's key matchups, Ware will be pitted against Broncos standout left tackle Ryan Clady, who's allowed just a half-sack in 19 career starts.
Although the Denver defense has been a surprising source of fantasy points in recent weeks, anticipate somewhat of a drop-off against a Dallas team that poses far more problems than the likes of Cleveland and Oakland. On offense, Marshall owners that have been forced to show patience with the troublesome receiver finally saw some positive signs with last Sunday's showing, and he could be primed for a breakout versus the Cowboys' shaky secondary. Counterpart Eddie Royal (6 receptions), an afterthought in Denver's new attack, should be benched but not dropped as of yet. Orton is worth giving a look this week, as there's a good chance the Broncos will have to throw more than in previous games, while the two-back approach of Moreno and Buckhalter make both players good flex plays but nothing more. Grab Choice if he's still on the waiver wire, as the usual third-stringer is the best bet for touches in Dallas' ailing backfield, and monitor the injury reports on Barber up until Sunday before making a decision. Romo's track record says start him even in what could be a tough test, while Witten's the only must-use among the Cowboys' pass catchers.
The jury may still be out as to the legitimacy of the Broncos, but there are two things we do know for sure about this team. Denver has proven it can pressure the quarterback and protect the passer, and Orton and his receivers have the skills to exploit a Dallas defense that can be beaten through the air if he gets sufficient time to throw. Romo's shown in the past he can be mistake-prone when under heavy duress, so look for the Broncos to rachet up the heat on the Cowboys quarterback and induce a costly mistake that could decide what's expected to be a tightly-contested game. A Denver team still seeking validation should get a few more believers if it can come up with what would be an attractive win over a name opponent.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Broncos 22, Cowboys 20