DENVER -- The Denver Broncos went with a defensive mullet of sorts in Sunday's victory over the Dallas Cowboys.
They were all business in front and it was their usual No Fly Zone party in the back as the Broncos came away with one sharp-dressed 42-17 win against the Cowboys to move to 2-0. To do it, the Broncos threw a situational curveball to prevent running back Ezekiel Elliott from once again allowing the Cowboys' offense to pound away at a defense and play at its pace.
The Broncos often used the defensive front they use in their base defense, including nose tackle Domata Peko, to go with a six-defensive back look in the secondary. It allowed the Broncos to play with a physical presence up front and still give the biggest variety of looks in coverage as they matched up with the Cowboys' receivers with their accomplished secondary.
"Our plan was to clog every gap," Broncos coach Vance Joseph said. "...[Defensive coordinator] Joe [Woods] had a great plan to make them throw the football; no one's played them that way. It was definitely a surprise to them in my opinion."
The result was staggering as Elliott finished with a career-low 8 yards rushing on nine carries -- his previous low was 51 yards rushing in his NFL regular-season rookie debut last season -- and Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott attempted a career-high 50 passes.
It forced the Cowboys to play out of sync almost from the start. They have usually featured Elliott on early downs and then Prescott would function in far more comfortable down-and-distance situations when they wanted to pass.
In Dallas' season opener against the New York Giants, the Cowboys had two scoring drives in the game when they didn't even have a third-down play as Elliott's work kept them in tempo. By comparison, the Cowboys threw the ball on seven of their first nine first-down plays in the game.
"It's hard when you are not able to establish [the run game]," Cowboys tight end Jason Witten said. "We pride ourselves on being able to run the football and we just couldn't get Zeke a lot of opportunities."
Said Broncos linebacker Brandon Marshall said. "We knew that no team can really beat us through the air, no team. If we stop the run, I feel like we're unstoppable as a defense. We did that."
On the other side of the ball, it didn't hurt that the Broncos' offense scored on three of the team's first five possessions of the game. Quarterback Trevor Siemian threw four touchdown passes and the Broncos piled up 178 yards rushing of their own. The tempo was exactly what the Broncos wanted it be and had the Cowboys looking for Prescott, instead of Elliott, to get them out of trouble.
"We made them [throw]," Joseph said. "We were in our base front, playing man free, so they knew they couldn't run the football. That was our plan, make them throw the football. [Elliott] could have run it 15 more times for 10 more yards, but that wouldn't help them win."
The signature moment might have come with just under eight minutes remaining in the third quarter when Broncos defensive end Derek Wolfe tackled Elliott for a 5-yard loss on a first-down play. At that moment in the game, Elliott had exactly zero yards rushing.
Prescott's increased dropbacks brought trouble as Broncos linebacker Von Miller had two fourth-quarter sacks and cornerback Aqib Talib intercepted Prescott's 50th, and last, pass attempt of the game and returned it 103 yards for a touchdown.
In two games this season, the Broncos' defense has now surrendered 64 yards rushing to the San Diego Chargers -- 21 of that on Melvin Gordon's first carry of the game -- and 40 yards rushing to the Cowboys in Denver's 2-0 start. It's early, but it's also a long way from 2016 when the Broncos finished 28th in the league in run defense.
"We had a great plan," Talib said. "We knew we had a great plan to stop the run and we know we've got dog up front [in the defensive line]. It might surprise all of you guys, but it doesn't surprise us. We spend so much time on our run fits, trying to get it better than it was last year. [The defensive line] is playing great, second to none. We're going to ride those boys all day."