After news came down that Denver had traded away arguably their best defensive player, Von Miller, it seemed that the Dallas offense would have little opposition when the Broncos came to AT&T Stadium on Sunday. The Denver defense pulled together and shut down the Cowboys like no other team has been able to do this season.
According to the official Denver Broncos website, wide receiver Tim Patrick said the Cowboys’ attempts to go for it on fourth down fired up the team.
“Disrespectful,” Patrick said. “That’s disrespectful. They trying us, and that’s what happens when you try us.”
On each of the first two possessions, head coach Mike McCarthy gambled on the fourth down. The first was a fourth-and-one attempt at the Denver 38.
Tony Pollard had just taken the opening kickoff 54 yards, and the Cowboys were looking to set the game’s tempo with a hand-off to Ezekiel Elliott. He was met in the backfield by Justin Simmons for the first tackle-for-loss of the day and a turnover on downs.
The second Cowboys drive also failed to convert on fourth down. During quarterback Dak Prescott’s third completion of the day, he connected with receiver Amari Cooper for a 32-yard catch and run. However, the Cowboys were unable to keep the momentum going. On fourth-and-two from the Denver 20, Prescott failed to connect with Cedrick Wilson.
Broncos QB Teddy Bridgewater said the stops on fourth down got the Denver offense motivated.
“You take the field with a little anger, honestly,” quarterback Teddy Bridgewater said post-game. “It’s like, ‘Hey, man, they’re going for it because they’re saying our offense is not going to score or something.’ We talked about it in the huddle, and we used it as motivation. […] It’s one of those deals where you take the field, and OKAY, you have a little added motivation to it. You can see that today.”
The Cowboys’ plan to set the game’s momentum in their favor by exploiting a perceived weak defense backfired and the Broncos’ offense lit up the scoreboard from then on, scoring all 30 of their points before Dallas got on the board.
The Cowboys would try for it on four fourth downs on Sunday and came away with zero conversions. Third downs were a struggle, too. The offense converted on only five of their 13 third-down attempts.
The Cowboys’ problems against Denver were multifaceted as there were multiple reasons for their defeat. Prescott, who sat last week while rehabbing from a calf strain, seemed out of sync with his receivers. After losing Tyron Smith earlier in the week, the Cowboys shuffled the O-line, moving Terence Steele from right to left and starting La’el Collins, who has not played in six weeks. Steele has done a phenomenal job on the right side but struggled throughout this game.
The defense could not get off the field, and Denver was able to exploit the Cowboys for big yardage plays regularly throughout the game. Cornerback Trevon Diggs did not have an interception for the second straight week after hauling in seven in six games.
Linebacker Micah Parsons had a good game, but he could not carry the entire team on his back. His eight solo tackles and three tackles-for-loss led an otherwise blase effort by the Cowboys’ defense.
The Cowboys’ two touchdowns came when the outcome of the game was nearly inevitable. The first was a short pass to Malik Turner with just over four minutes remaining in the fourth quarter. The second touchdown pass, also to Turner, came as the clock dipped below one minute remaining.
There were few bright spots for the Cowboys on Sunday, but despite the loss, the first since Week 1, they still have a healthy lead in the NFC East at 6-2. They will host the 4-4 Atlanta Falcons next Sunday in Arlington.