Any Given Sunday
The weekend's biggest upset goes under the Football Outsiders lens.

Any Given Sunday: Broncos Over Cowboys

Any Given Sunday: Broncos Over Cowboys
Photo: USA Today Sports Images

by Rivers McCown

The Dallas Cowboys are currently the greatest running offense in the NFL. A star-studded unit led by Ezekiel Elliott, Travis Frederick, Zack Martin, and Tyron Smith. They're buffered even further by Dak Prescott's scrambling ability. On paper, Denver's ability to stop the run was the weaker portion of their all-world defense. They did well to contain Melvin Gordon on Monday Night Football, but were just 21st in run defense DVOA last year. With those facts in hand, it wasn't crazy to see the Cowboys winning a game that they could control on the ground.

Instead, Elliott mustered eight rushing yards on nine attempts. Combine those with the carries from change-of-pace back Rod Smith, and fans received a staggering 16 yards from Cowboys backs on 11 attempts. This was, to put it charitably, not how the game was supposed to play out.

It's hard to imagine that this group just got whipped up front, but that's the gist of it. I would happily show you cutups of this if there were no deadlines and NFL Game Pass weren't the worst product the entire league puts together.

Per NFL Next Gen Stats, Elliott saw plenty of loaded boxes. It's sort of a fluke of circumstance, but the Cowboys actually only ran the ball one time in the red zone the entire game. So if you combine those two factors, you can see that the Broncos dared Prescott to beat their secondary.

Despite the pick-six, I don't know if it's fair to say that Prescott had a horrendous game. He had some nice throws. It's just that this is a ridiculously good pass defense, and they appeared to be in Prescott's head from the beginning.

Dallas' passing game is mainly fueled by just how good and efficient Dez Bryant can be. With Bryant catching just seven of 16 targets for 59 yards, the Cowboys were forced to promote the rest of their receivers to more central roles that they just can't handle. Jason Witten is one of the best tight ends of all time, but jogs out routes like your dad at this point in his career. Cole Beasley wins with short-area quickness. If Bryant can't get 10 yards beyond the line of scrimmage in this offense, none of the reliable receivers can. And against this pass defense, you can't afford to constrict yourself at all.

It was a brutal game for the whole unit, though perhaps not one that tells us much as of Week 2. I'd be more inclined to reach for a panic button were this not, you know, the Denver Broncos. Von Miller can make any offense look foolish.

By the DVOA

Team Off Def ST Total
DAL -35.0% 25.9% 10.6% -50.3%
DEN 37.4% -20.9% -21.1% 37.2%

Sometimes when we run the DVOA, we find that a team got lucky in a win. This, like last week, was not one of those times.

Questionable Coaching Decision of the Game

With 11:47 to play and a manageable fourth-and-3 at their own 26, the Cowboys punted away down three scores. The Broncos managed to drain 5:20 before they gave the ball back, effectively depleting any chance that Dallas had of winning the game.

The society of coaches who play for the respectable loss is a weird and maddening one.

Trevor Siemian's Competency And What You Can Do About It

I want to share two charts here. As a writer, I am big on the written word as a descriptor of things. Sometimes you don't really need that, though.

This is Trevor Siemian's throwing chart from's Next Gen Stats package. Notice how the passes all tend to be relatively close to the line of scrimmage. The five passes that were 15 or more yards down the field were incomplete or intercepted. This is not an uncommon theme for quarterbacks, but one that is especially important when facing the Broncos.

Here's another chart from Warren Sharp, looking at NFL passer rating by area of the field, on Siemian for the past two seasons.

The thing is, Siemian has what former Football Outsiders writer Matt Waldman would call "cat burglar guts." If he sees the deep throw, he's willing to write the check and see if his arm can cash it. Siemian has 105 throws that went more than 15 yards past the line of scrimmage over the past year and change.

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But Dallas never actually forced Denver to make that change. Siemian had his pick of the litter underneath, and usually Dallas' defenders were busy missing tackles or picking poor angles and creating additional first downs. According to Sports Info Solutions charting, 165 of Denver's 178 rushing yards came after first contact.

At this point, it's fair to wonder if Jaylon Smith is going to play at a high level post-knee injury. It's also true that this is traditionally how the Cowboys play defense under Rod Marinelli. They will eschew giving up the big play to keep things in front of them.

In that way, the matchup with the Cowboys was playing to Denver's strengths. Rather than making Siemian throw deep inaccurately, Dallas allowed the shorter passes to the main Denver ballcarriers, who have enough tackle-breaking ability to pounce on some poor effort and keep Dallas constantly backpedaling.

In the battle of defensive identity against situational gameplanning, this was an L for the identity.


19 comments, Last at 21 Sep 2017, 7:57am

2 Re: Any Given Sunday: Broncos Over Cowboys

Not too hard to find. Would be interesting if they had full season charts too, but the best I can find is game by game charts and this:

4 Re: Any Given Sunday: Broncos Over Cowboys

Is it typical that there would be such a big difference in passer rating by Deep Left/Middle/Right? 105 passes were beyond 15 yard but how many were to each area? I.e. is it a sample size problem that causes the difference, or a QB or personnel difference (e.g. Do Sanders, DT typically line up on one side of the field)?

Also, one of the 15 yard passes was a really nice TD throw to Sanders so not all of the passes at or beyond that distance were incomplete or intercepted.

8 Re: Any Given Sunday: Broncos Over Cowboys

I'm wondering how much of that is the terrible blocking from the right side of the line last year? Without film study I suspect that passes to the right had to be heaved over close pressure and with poorer sight lanes than those the left. It isn't as if Melelik Watson is a great improvement, but he seems to mix adequate blocking with overselling against speed rushes and beaten almost instantly inside, compared to last year when much of the line was capable of simply being pushed backwards straight to the QB.

The end of the Kubiak offence was also getting terrifyingly predictable with the running game not working, if the vast majority of deep passes are on obvious deep passing downs then most QBs are not going to produce well on those plays.

I don't think Siemian has anything close to elite arm talent, but he seems to have enough of an arm (combined with enough between the ears) to be a solid QB. There was a nice article somewhere after he won the camp competition against Lynch talking about how Siemian takes huge amounts of notes about everything because he learnt from Peyton Manning that if you write some notes it helps things stick (being essentially an extra layer of repetition in the learning process). Siemian said he had learned a lot about preparation and the mental work side of things from Manning, it might be that as well as more imaginative offence in general is helping him at least play to the best of his athletic potential.

10 Re: Any Given Sunday: Broncos Over Cowboys

I don't think Siemian has anything close to elite arm talent, but he seems to have enough of an arm (combined with enough between the ears) to be a solid QB.

Def. He's a smart kid with an OK arm. This is why all of the "low ceiling" talk is nonsense -- there's a lot of upside in a player like that. If he stays healthy, I could easily see him developing into a fringe top ten starter (basically what he's done so far this year but for an entire season). The real issue is the "if he stays healthy" part. I'll need to see it to believe it.

7 Re: Any Given Sunday: Broncos Over Cowboys

I'm going to have to report the author to Scott and Aaron. It's mandatory FO style rules that any article that discussed Siemian to any appreciable degree must use the terms "low ceiling" and "below average" ("mediocre" is an acceptable substitute for the latter).

11 Re: Any Given Sunday: Broncos Over Cowboys

Given the quality of a lot of quarterbacking at the moment, someone who rarely performs below mediocre (DYAR > 0 ?) and has the odd good game would probably be better the starters on a lot teams. Getting that player on a 7th round pick and rookie contract just helps keep the rest of the team together around the QB for a few years as well ;)