DENVER -- Anyone who watched the Broncos game at Oakland last season recognized Denver's offseason plan. Get bigger, better and nastier on the defensive line. Oakland pushed the Broncos around, running the same play repeatedly, daring Denver to stop it.
The Broncos could not, and squandered their AFC West crown to Oakland and Kansas City. The reaction to 9-7 started upfront. The Broncos signed nose tackle Domata Peko and defensive end Zach Kerr, drafted DeMarcus Walker and added Ahtyba Rubin this week. Encouraging preseason signs translated to the season opener with the Broncos holding the Chargers to 64 yards on the ground. The Dallas Cowboys, however, are an entirely different animal. The Cowboys represent the first litmus test for the new and improved defense. They look like the Raiders, except with an even better offensive line. Guard Zack Martin, left tackle Tyron Smith and center Travis Frederick are arguably the top three players at their position in the league.
As Broncos coach Vance Joseph put it, "They’re big, they’re athletic and very, very smart.”
The Broncos' path to success exists, though is difficult. My look at the Broncos Denver7 Keys to victory:
1) Slow Ezekiel Elliott
No one has stopped Zeke since the first game of his career. Winning requires Denver turning Elliott into a plodder, along the lines of 25 carries for 90 yards. Last season, he rushed for more than 1,000 yards on first down. Slow him on the first carries of drives, and the Broncos' chances of winning will increase dramatically. The Broncos activated Kyle Peko on Saturday and signed Ahyta Rubin, both of whom could play Sunday. Watch out for Derek Wolfe. He's healthier and ready for this bare-knuckle brawl.
2) Make Dak Pass
Sounds loopy, I know. Prescott has thrown four interceptions in 17 regular season games. However, he reminds me of the MVP version of Cam Newton in this matchup. Newton was the league's top player when the Broncos upset the Panthers in Super Bowl 50. The blueprint was simple. Stop the run, and force Newton to the air where the Broncos held advantages in coverage. It worked perfectly. A similar argument can be advanced in this game. Chris Harris and Aqib Talib vs. Cole Beasley and Dez Bryant favors the Broncos, but Jason Witten is the X-factor. Darian Stewart and Justin Simmons' ability to contain him could decide the game. Stewart, who missed a few series against the Chargers with a groin injury, told Denver7 he's "pain free and ready to go."
3) Claim turnover battle
The Broncos own a 30-game win streak, dating to 2012, when winning the turnover battle. It represents the longest streak in the NFL. The Broncos are also 9-0 over the past two seasons when scoring a defensive touchdown. That is ambitious, but taking care of the ball is critical.
4) Stay balanced
The Broncos ran more than they passed last week. This is no small distinction. It created space for Trevor Siemian to work. It also keeps pass rushers off balance. Look for the Broncos to use Connor McGovern in jumbo packages to help struggling right tackle Menelik Watson. The Cowboys mauled the Giants. The Broncos should be more diverse than New York. C.J. Anderson posting 80 yards should free Siemian to produce an outing like the opener. It helps that right guard Ron Leary is expected to play.
5) Linebackers step up
Todd Davis made the hit of the night against the Chargers, smashing Melvin Gordon. Brandon Marshall looked healthier and stronger. Filling gaps in the run game will be pivotal. Elliott rarely goes down on the first hit, so the linebackers must clean up the pile.
6) Big Play E
Receiver Emmanuel Sanders delivered a quiet performance in the opener. A breakout seems likely, especially when matched up with rookie and former Colorado star Chidobe Awuzie. Awuzie will move around on the field as a ballhawk. When he takes a chance, the Broncos must capitalize with Sanders or Demaryius Thomas.
7) Special teams fix
Isaiah McKenzie showed his burst on a 31-yard punt return last week. It was longer than any return last season. Another jaunt could set up a field goal that makes the difference in the outcome. The Broncos have beaten the Cowboys five straight times, and a sixth sets up Denver to go 3-1 in the first quarter of the season, a necessary result when chasing the Chiefs and Raiders.
Renck prediction: Broncos 23, Cowboys 20