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Broncos Trevor Siemian stars; Defense suffocates vaunted Cowboys running game

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Posted at 6:24 PM, Sep 17, 2017
and last updated 2017-09-18 12:12:44-04

DENVER -- They are a cooperative bunch with an abrasive past. They smile into cameras, yet curry enemies. They are talented, ornery, but doubted with alarming regularity.

Meet the 2017 Broncos defense. They are improved. And suddenly the new Broncos, look like the Broncos of old. Does 2015 sound any alarms? 

Outside Dove Valley, critics viewed the Cowboys as a 2 1/2-point favorite to win Sunday. When the Broncos looked at the Cowboys, they saw the Carolina Panthers in Super Bowl 50. The formula crystallized in meetings, in practice and Sunday at rain-soaked Mile Stadium in the Broncos' 42-17 mauling.

"I tried to warn them. I trained with Dak, some of those guys, in the offseason," said cornerback Chris Harris Jr., who intercepted Prescott. "I tried to tell them they hadn't faced a defense like this."

The Broncos aced the exam because Dak Prescott couldn't pass the test in a marathon Sunday following a 62-minute lightning delay in the first half. The Broncos wanted Prescott to throw the ball, same as Newton. Prescott deserves acclaim, but he realized it is increasingly more difficult to win when you can't run. 

"We cut off one of their heads," explained defensive lineman Derek Wolfe. "We have the best secondary in the league. We have one of the best pass rushes in the league. That's a recipe for disaster for opponents."

Star running back Ezekiel Elliott entered the game trying to establish a record with his 16th-straight contest of at least 80 yards on the ground. He finished with eight yards on nine carries.

"How many? You are kidding," said former Cowboys offensive lineman and now Broncos starting right guard Ron Leary. "I didn't know that. Give credit to our defense. I see how hard they work every day. They get after it."

Before Sunday, Elliott's career low sat at 51 yards in his NFL debut. In the opener, the Broncos held the Chargers to 64 yards rushing, this after getting gashed on the ground last season. 

"We have to make their offensive line uncomfortable," defensive Derek Wolfe told Denver7 earlier in the week. "We have to outhustle them."

The Broncos made the Cowboys squirm. Prescott absorbed constant pressure. He eluded sacks, but had trouble going through progressions. He was playing for fantasy league owner by the third quarter. He finished with 30-for-50 for 238 yards and two interceptions. Aqib Talib provided the final crowbar to the Cowboys' shins, taking a pick six 103 yards for a score with 53 seconds remaining.

"My brother is out here. A couple of my friends are out here. I had my whole suite full, 22 people," said Talib, whose 10th career interception returned for a touchdown moved him into sole possession of fourth place in league history. "We don't want to call it a statement win. But it was a big win. And Buffalo can be our nexdt statement win if you want to call it that." 

For one day, Trevor Siemian proved better than Prescott, despite losing starting left tackle Garett Bolles to a left high ankle sprain, according to a postgame tweet from his wife Natalie Bolles. Bolles left the locker room on crutches and will undergo an MRI on Monday.

Even with a refangled offensive line of moving parts, Siemian never lost his poise. He completed 22 of 33 passes for 231 yards and tied his career high with four touchdowns.

"The Denver Broncos played well. One of things when we came in is that we wanted to play complementary football," Siemian said. "To beat the good teams in this league you have to play well together. It's week two, but we are excited about where we are at."

The Broncos raced to a 25-point lead as Siemian made The Decision and discussion of a quarterback competition seem like a memory made for black-and-white film. Playing his best home game, Siemian delivered all of his scoring passes through the first three-quarters. He showed a willingness to extend plays and scramble when necessary. Criticized as a liability as a first-year starter, Siemian's cold-blooded dissection of a depleted Cowboys secondary extended the impressive start to his season. Through two games, he has thrown for 450 yards and six touchdowns.

"I thought Trevor was excellent once again. Very, very, very efficient with the football," coach Vance Joseph said. "He put his us in good plays all night."

Only lightning could delay the inevitable Broncos' win.

When the skies darkened over the stadium, it brought little pause. In the name of leather helmets and Chuck Bednarik, football games don't stop for poor weather. The Rockies were in a delay one exit down south on I-25, but there was little reason to fear the Broncos halting. And, they rooted against it after taking a 7-0 lead, while winning the time of possession. But league rules call for delays regarding lightning. As the slow-moving storm settled in, the game interrupted for 62 minutes, resuming at 4 p.m.

The players passed the time by watching video of the Cowboys, playing Connect Four and staging a dance contest, not necessarily in that order.

"And we had some peanut butter and jelly sandwiches," said Von Miller, who finished with two sacks, snapping his five-game drought dating to last season. "We sat down and had a couple of rock, paper, scissors game. We kept it light."

The pregnant pause did not bother the Broncos defense. Tired of hearing about Cowboys offensive line -- "Everyone has anointed them as the best ever. We took that personally," nose tackle Domata Peko told me -- the Broncos swarmed to the ball, stifling Elliott. When play restarted with the Cowboys facing a second-and-10 at the 46-yard line, a blitz forced Prescott into an ugly incompletion, followed by a hustling Shaq Barrett wrenching tackle that bent Prescott's knee awkwardly.

It was symbolic of a strong first half. The Broncos led 21-10, holding the Cowboys to five first downs and 12 yards rushing, while possessing the ball for 18 minutes, 36 seconds. Elliott wasn't used to getting wrapped up by the first tackler after making a living piling up yards after contact.

"We just couldn't get things started up front," Elliott said. "And we just weren't on the field that long."

Added owner Jerry Jones after the Broncos scored the most points on them since 2013, "That was not us."

If not for a glaring Menelik Watson mistake, the Broncos might have been boat racing the Cowboys. Watson, the right tackle, created an argument to be benched after allowing a strip sack to DeMarcus Lawrence in the second quarter. If Watson fails to produce a perfect push with hands, his feet aren't capable of moving fast enough to prevent pressure. The Cowboys took over at 3-yard line with 13:23 remaining in the half. Prescott connected with Dez Bryant, tying the score at 7-all. 

The Broncos hired Mike McCoy to pilot their offense for this reason. To become a stranger to passivity. The attack needed caffeine. Like a six-pack of Red Bull and a shot of Monster. Especially at the start of games. The Broncos scored 24 points on first possessions a year ago. They had three touchdowns. They own one this year, Siemian capping an impressive 76-yard march with a 10-yard loft to Emmanuel Sanders. 

"He's a genius," Wolfe said. "Whenever you expect something, he does something different."

What sticks out early is the diversity. Siemian proved capable, as in the opener, of making plays downfield. Last week, receiver Bennie Fowler put it thusly, "He's more confident, and it's clear he's healthier." Balance remains the key. C.J. Anderson rushed for 118 yards on 25 carries with a long of 28 yards.

"We want to score every possession," Anderson said of the group's new mindset.

Playing with a lead cannot be overstated. It opens the playbook, and allows for creative maneuvers defensively. The Broncos held the Cowboys on their first two possessions, which included Adam Gotsis moving around and Miller, at one point, in zone coverage. 

Before Mother Nature so rudely interrupted, the Broncos squandered an impressive drive as Brandon McManus pushed a 49-yard field goal wide right. It marked the second straight game with a miss.

A year ago, it would have doomed the Broncos. This offense, this year, is different.

The Broncos answered with a 14-play, 81-yard time guzzling drive. Siemian provided the exclamation point with a 16-yard connection to Anderson. Playing with urgency and intensity, Anderson lost safety Jeff Heath in coverage with a pivot that caused Heath to slip.  Taking over with 4:20 remaining in the half, Siemian went to work. He utilized scrambles and short passes to chew up yardage. And fortune smiled on the Broncos. Lawrence made a silly miscue, called for leverage on the center on Brandon McManus' 50-yard field goal. The Broncos removed the points from the board and scored three plays later after a Siemian jaunt and a dart to a wide open Sanders in the corner of the end zone. It inflated the Broncos lead to 21-7. 

Dallas rallied, if only briefly, with Dan Bailey drilling a 56-yard field to end the half. The Cowboys trailing by 11 felt bigger because of their inability to run the ball or produce third down stops. The long drives served a strategic purpose. It placed the Cowboys defense in the unique position of being on the field more than normal. Their defenders are used to being fresh while their team gorges the clock. 

It is two weeks. But, the AFC West looks more like the UFC. There are no easy paths to the playoffs. The Broncos, though, have served notice that they will be in the mix. Even critics can't hide from this truth because the Broncos are dangerous when they stop the run.

"We have best secondary, best pass rusher in football," said Gotsis, arguably the team's most improved player. "You put the game in their hands, you see what happens."

Ware proud of Von

DeMarcus Ware left an indelible footprint on the Broncos during his playoff performance and speeches in 2015 and his influence on Von Miller. Miler is now a captain, following in Ware's footsteps. 

"I knew Von had that in him. How throughout the years I was here, how much he matured. To see that C on his chest, I told him you don't have to put the team on your back," Ware said. "I told him to just go out there and play and be himself. It's great to see."

Ware, 35, considered coming out of retirement for a few seconds after the Broncos Shane Ray injured his left wrist in training camp. He thought the better of it. He retired because of a nagging back injury and his desire to live a full, athletic life with his children.

"I had some second thoughts when Shane went down. But I am having such a great time (as a father and a broadcaster for NFL Network)," said Ware, who was honored at Sunday's game. "I don't have to put the pads back and beat anyone up anymore. I have played enough football."

Footnotes

Receiver Bennie Fowler suffered a concussion, collapsing twice on the field after a near touchdown grab. ... The Broncos shuffled their offensive line, putting Allen Barbre at left tackle. Connor McGovern played some at right guard with Ron Leary appearing bothered briefly by cramping in his right leg. The Broncos will consider Barbre as a potential starter if Bolles has to miss a few weeks. ... It turned out to be too quick of a turnaround for Ahtyba Rubin. The Broncos new nose tackle hoped to play this week, but needs more time. He was the one notable on Sunday's inactive list joining Jordan Taylor (healthy scratch), Paxton Lynch (shoulder), Devontae Booker (wrist, available next week), Billy Turner (not needed with Ron Leary playing) and Zach Kerr (likely ready vs. Buffalo w sprained knee). ... Broncos captains: Aqib Talib, Von Miller, Trevor Siemian, Brandon McManus, Derek Wolfe and Demaryius Thomas.                
               
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Want Broncos news? Denver7 Broncos insider Troy E. Renck is your source. He talks to the players, covers the games and reports scoops on Denver7 and the Denver7 app. He is a CU grad who has covered pro sports in Colorado since 1996, including 14 years at The Denver Post. Follow him on Facebook, Twitter and TheDenverChannel.com’s Broncos page. Troy welcomes most of your emails at Troy.Renck@kmgh.com.