Double Coverage: Broncos at Cowboys

Wes Welker, left, and Dez Bryant have combined for 49 catches and 10 touchdowns this season. Icon SMI, USA TODAY Sports

Peyton Manning makes his first appearance at AT&T Stadium when the undefeated Denver Broncos come to town to take on the Dallas Cowboys.

Manning has done just about everything right this season, but he’s lost his past two games to the Cowboys and has been intercepted six times.

That seems a lifetime ago now, but Broncos team reporter Jeff Legwold and Cowboys team reporter Todd Archer bring you this week’s Double Coverage:

Archer: This Peyton Manning guy seems pretty good. What does he do that is so different from just about every other quarterback in the NFL?

Legwold: Todd, all of the work he put in physically to return from his missed season in 2011 is now combined with his other-worldly preparation and game-day recall for the start he’s put together. When John Elway signed him, Elway said he wanted a player who “raised all the boats’’ in the organization, a guy to set the bar in terms of getting ready to play. And despite Manning’s résumé, he practices harder, prepares more and pours more of himself into each week than almost any other player. It sets the tone even with the coaches, who have to try to stay a step ahead of him as they all get ready. And behind center he is rarely fooled because of it. He is on a historic pace in an offense Elway has built from his own experiences at quarterback, and defenses have rarely put a hand on him, especially in the past two games. Monte Kiffin has certainly seen Manning plenty over the years: How do you think he’ll go about defending him and the Broncos?

Archer: Coming off the meltdown last week against San Diego’s Philip Rivers (401 yards, three touchdowns), I think Kiffin will petition the NFL to ask for a 12th defender. And I’m not sure that will work. Manning knows everything about this defense, so it’s not about tricking him. The Cowboys must get pressure on him and that starts with DeMarcus Ware, who strained a muscle in his back last week. Kiffin knows if he blitzes, then Manning will beat him. Kiffin is also dealing with a cornerback in Morris Claiborne who lacks confidence and technique, which is never a good combination. The last time Orlando Scandrick saw Wes Welker, he did a good job limiting him in New England, so maybe the Cowboys feel OK about that matchup. But there are so many weapons for Manning to choose from that it’s hard to slow the Broncos down. The key will be early pressure and red zone defense. Somehow Dallas has to force the Broncos to kick field goals.

Manning gets all of the attention -- and for good reason -- but what has not received as much attention in Denver's 4-0 start?

Legwold: Manning’s ridiculous numbers have overwhelmed almost every discussion about the team, but the ability for the offensive line to perform, consistently, at a fairly high level given the fact All-Pro left tackle Ryan Clady is on injured reserve and Manny Ramirez had never started a regular-season game at center until the opener, has been key. The Broncos haven’t always been all that proficient in the run game -- 39 carries this season of two or fewer yards (32.5 percent of their runs) -- but they have protected Manning well and that’s certainly Job 1. The Eagles sacked Manning just once this past Sunday and may not have touched him on any other play in the game. The Broncos also have high-end team speed up and down the roster -- an Elway initiative since he took the job. And while the defense has benefited from the big leads, it has performed well overall considering Champ Bailey and Von Miller haven’t played this season.

Quarterback Tony Romo’s numbers look good on paper. What is the level of patience right now with Romo, both inside and outside of the organization?

Archer: To me there is no player more scrutinized than Romo. There is no gray area when people discuss him. He’s either terrible or great. From the fans, they expect Super Bowls because that’s what Roger Staubach and Troy Aikman delivered and they hear about the great talent on this roster. There is talent, but it’s not as abundant as the national talking heads believe. From inside the organization, Romo is the guy. They just guaranteed him $55 million this offseason and have given him more control of the offense than he has ever had. Jerry Jones came up with the famous “Peyton Manning time” quote about how much he wants the quarterback involved. He’s playing well, completing 72 percent of his throws and avoiding mistakes. His one interception was on a receiver running the wrong route. Fans might want him gone, but they tend to forget the long wait this franchise had in finding Romo after Aikman retired.

You mentioned Miller. He’s a local kid. What kind of fall has he taken and does he have the full support of the organization?

Legwold: Miller is four games into his six-game suspension for violating the league’s substance-abuse policy. And he had a bumpy ride through training camp with news of the suspension, to go with an arrest for failing to appear for a court appearance when he was going through a mandatory background check at a gun shop near the Broncos’ facility, to go with some traffic violations and the revelation he tried to beat the drug test with a side deal with the sample collector, who has since been fired. His reputation and image have taken a big hit, and privately some in the organization and even some of his teammates shake their heads at what they say is immaturity and the fact he hasn’t publicly taken much responsibility for it all. He, at one point, said the media has harmed his reputation, but he hasn’t shown much accountability in the public arena and that has bothered some. But that said, he is one of the Broncos' best players, a physically gifted athlete, and the organization has tried to get him help and on the right track. They will have an enormous decision to make in regard to a contract extension at some point given Miller is now in Stage 3 of the drug program and, at least according to the policy, will remain there for the remainder of his career.

In terms of the Cowboys' pass rush, are the injuries starting to catch up to DeMarcus Ware a bit, and how key is he still to what Kiffin wants to do on defense?

Archer: Maybe a little bit, but he is still an elite pass-rusher. Last year he played most of the second half of the season with a shoulder that needed reconstructive surgery, and a hyperextended elbow. This year he is battling stingers and now a muscle strain in his back. For far too long the Cowboys' pass rush has been Ware and nobody else. As well as George Selvie (three sacks) has played, he’s not Anthony Spencer, who is out for the year with a knee injury. Jason Hatcher has taken to this scheme, but the Cowboys have yet to see Jay Ratliff, who is on the physically unable to perform list, practice since last season. Ware is the key. The Cowboys are moving him around to try to take advantage of matchups and he has four sacks. He just needs some help and has for some time. Who it comes from, however, is another story.

Do we see Champ Bailey this week and how have the Broncos compensated?

Legwold: On Friday last week, it looked like Bailey would at least get some situational work in the defense against the Eagles, but the Broncos held out the 12-time Pro Bowl selection for the fourth consecutive game. Bailey has characterized it, including after Sunday’s win over the Eagles, as “close, very close,’’ and if he continues to go through practice this week -- it is his third week back in practice -- he would seem to be on track to play. The Broncos have gotten everything they hoped from Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie. When they signed him they essentially told him he had the talent to play like a No. 1 cornerback, but would have to lift his game and be ready to be coached hard. Rodgers-Cromartie was on board with that and has played like a No. 1 on the outside. The Broncos have matched him on receivers already this season and will give plenty of thought to matching him on Dez Bryant. Also, Chris Harris, who made this team as an undrafted rookie in 2011, has played like a starter almost since his first training-camp practice. Harris is tough, competitive and versatile -- he can play inside or outside -- and Denver has gotten enough from Tony Carter and rookie cornerback Kayvon Webster to make it work.

On offense for the Cowboys, how has Bill Callahan, whose son is a Broncos quality control assistant, fared as the playcaller so far?

Archer: He’s been OK. It’s hard to get a feel for his style. The Cowboys have run it better the past two weeks, but they were spotty the first two weeks. They have not taken many shots down the field. Romo has only three completions of 25 yards or more this year and he has averaged 33 a season. I don’t know if that is Callahan’s West Coast background or Romo not trusting his line yet to hold off the rush. The issue I had (and have) with Callahan as the playcaller has nothing to do with his résumé, but the fact that this is not his system. This is Jason Garrett’s passing game still. So, to me, they’re putting him in a situation that doesn’t work best for him. Again, he’s been OK and he seems to be working fine with Romo, but I think there is still a feeling-out process going on.

A little offbeat here, but I want to ask about Elway. As you know, the Jerry Jones/general manager story is something that doesn’t die. I wonder if Troy Aikman ever looks at Elway as a possible example if he ever wanted to jump into the personnel game. How good has Elway been? How involved in everything is he?

Legwold: Todd, it is unprecedented that a Hall of Fame quarterback has jumped into the day-to-day grind of personnel since most make a handsome living on TV, card shows or the celebrity golf circuit, but Elway has dived in and shown himself to be a nuts-and-bolts talent evaluator. He knows what he likes in players and in three drafts has consistently stuck to those evaluations, and the Broncos have worked their draft board with consistency. He believes a draft-built team is the key, but will spend Pat Bowlen’s money when he has a chance at somebody like Manning or Wes Welker. His challenge now will be to avoid what so many teams do with the alpha quarterback behind center -- sign too many older players to high-end deals they can’t play up to -- and keep the roster young and homegrown. But overall he works it, looks at the video and has created an environment where the scouts and personnel guys believe what they’re doing is important to what the team is trying to do.

On that, do you think Jerry Jones will ever really give the draft the importance it deserves in team building?

Archer: Why would he start now? Sorry, I kid. Here’s where I think Jerry goes wrong with the draft: He listens to too many people. Honestly, he does. He has too many people in his ear and it affects his decision-making. The coaches have too much say. His friends outside the building have too much say. He needs to trust his scouts, which he often talks about but rarely does. The Cowboys could have picked Sharrif Floyd in the first round. They had him as a top-10 player on their board, but when it came time to pick, they passed because Rod Marinelli didn’t believe Floyd had enough pass rush skill. If that’s the case, then Floyd shouldn’t have been that high on the Dallas board. The Cowboys traded down and took Travis Frederick, who many saw as a second- or third-round pick. Now, Frederick has the makings of a long-term starter, so I won’t quibble with the pick, but the process in which Dallas got there was highly flawed. To me, that’s the Cowboys’ biggest issue when it comes to the draft.