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Mark Gaughan's X's and O's: Don't let Von Miller ruin the game

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The first thing the Buffalo Bills should do in preparing to face the Denver Broncos Sunday is ignore the offensive game plan the Dallas Cowboys used last week.

Denver has the best pass defense in the NFL. The Broncos have the best speed rusher in the NFL in Von Miller. Denver's cornerback trio of Aqib Talib, Chris Harris Jr. and Bradley Roby is either the best or second best threesome in the NFL (with the New York Giants). They call themselves the "No Fly Zone."

So what did the Cowboys do in their 42-17 loss? They called pass plays on 21 of their first 25 offensive snaps. By the time they got the ball back for their 26th snap, they were down, 28-10.

The Cowboy plan was to pass to open up the run, and coach Jason Garrett didn't second-guess it after the game.

“When they play that style of defense, you have to be able to consistently attack with the passing game,” Garrett told reporters. "We really needed to have success throwing the ball. We were not able to do that."

No doubt the Bills will have to hit some passes to try to keep Denver's defensive front honest. But you can bet Bills offensive coordinator Rick Dennison will not become pass-drunk.

This is a defense that held Tom Brady to 188 passing yards last season. The Bills can't beat Denver throwing 65 percent of the downs, much less 83 percent (the percentage the Cowboys called).

Denver has finished No. 1 in the NFL in pass defense each of the past two years. Seattle was first in 2013-14. Pittsburgh was first in 2011-12. No team since 1970 has led the NFL three straight years.

Miller, who has 75.5 sacks in just five seasons, had two sacks and seven hurries vs. Dallas. Bills tackles Cordy Glenn, Jordan Mills and Dion Dawkins all struggled at Carolina.

“In the National Football League, if a team doesn’t want you to get a sack, that’s top on their agenda, that’s their primary goal," Miller told reporters before the season opener. "Don’t let Von get a sack. Don’t let him ruin the game. Ninety percent of the time, it’s not going to happen. You have to find other ways to change the game."

Miller sums up the Bills' No. 1 objective: Don't let him ruin the game. How do they do that?

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The first thing to expect is for the Bills to keep two tight ends or fullback Patrick DiMarco on the field to force Denver to play its base, 3-4 defense. That keeps Miller as a stand-up outside linebacker, and two-TE sets put him a tad farther from the QB. In obvious passing situations, Miller pins his ears back as an end on the four-man line.

Denver played last season with four DBs on the field 57 percent of the snaps, the most in the NFL and the only team over 50 percent, according to Football Outsiders.

With the shut-down corners locking down the outside, opponents last year threw 27 percent of passes against Denver to tight ends, No. 1 in the NFL. Charles Clay and Nick O'Leary will need to be factors for the Bills.

Denver ranked 28th against the run last season but addressed the problem by adding 330-pound nose tackle Domata Peko in free agency from Cincinnati. He gave star Dallas center Travis Frederick fits last week. How much improved is Denver's run D? The Bills need to challenge it.

"To stop the run, it’s an attitude," Peko said Monday. "You have to go out there and draw a line in the sand and say, I’m not going to move back it. Nobody is going to push me around."

It will be interesting to watch how much Denver stays in its 3-4 front. Against Dallas, Denver used a "big dime," with six defensive backs but a beefy front five. Usually a defense plays lighter defensive linemen when it goes to six DBs. Dallas QB Dak Prescott seemed eager to try to exploit the two extra DBs on the field.

It's a rugged challenge for Dennison & Co., because Denver won't feel a need to play safeties over the top of the Bills' receivers.

If the Bills fall behind, look out. Denver lost defensive coordinator Wade Phillips to the Rams and promoted defensive backs coach Joe Woods, who worked the past two years under Phillips. Denver blitzed the fourth most in the NFL last season (on 38 percent of pass plays). Woods blitzed Philip Rivers a ton in Week One.

The 30,000-foot view

John Elway has had a great six-season run as general manager of the Broncos, with a knack for pushing the right buttons. He pulled the plug on popular Tim Tebow as QB, drafted Von Miller and then won the recruiting battle for Peyton Manning. After losing the Super Bowl in 2014, Elway signed DeMarcus Ware, Talib and T.J. Ward for the defense. The Broncos beat Carolina for the title in 2015. Elway then resisted the temptation to overpay QB Brock Osweiler, letting him walk in free agency. After last season's 9-7 finish, coach Gary Kubiak retired for health reasons. Many expected Elway to hire offensive guru Kyle Shanahan. Instead, he picked Miami defensive chief Vance Joseph. While the 45-year-old Joseph had been a coordinator only one year, he has 12 years of NFL coaching experience. Look for Denver to keep winning under Joseph. In the last 40 years, the Broncos have had only six losing seasons.

Game-breakers

Denver's starting wideout duo of Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders each have topped 1,000 receiving yards three straight seasons. The record for a duo is four straight by Minnesota's Cris Carter and Jake Reed. The 6-foot-3 Thomas isn't a pure burner (4.52 speed in the 40) but his size-speed combination makes him lethal downfield. His career yards-per-catch is 16th best among active players and every other game, on average, he catches a pass of 30-plus yards. He was a first-round pick in 2010. The 5-11 Sanders was timed in 4.40 when he was drafted by Pittsburgh in the third round in 2010. He's quick in the short area, too. He's hard to stop on Patriots-style pivot-routes off Trevor Siemian bootleg action.

Weak link

Offensive tackle is the suspect area for the Broncos, especially because rookie starter Garett Bolles is out this week with an ankle injury. The likely replacement at left tackle is Allen Barbre, a decent veteran but a guy better at guard than tackle. The other option is Donald Stephenson, a big liability. Right tackle Menelik Watson is poor in pass protection. But he's a superb run-blocker, which is why he's hanging onto his job. If the Bills can create third-and-longs, Jerry Hughes and Lorenzo Alexander can feast.

New OC

Mike McCoy, who went 27-37 as Chargers head coach the past four years, took over for the Bills' Dennison as Denver offensive coordinator. One difference so far is Denver is calling more gap-scheme runs, with guards pulling. Dennison stuck mostly to zone scheme in Denver. New guard Ron Leary, signed from Dallas, is off to a strong start.

Stat for the road

Elway has more wins in his first 100 games (71-29) than any other top personnel executive in history. The next five: Oakland's Al Davis (69-24-7), Buffalo's Bill Polian (61-39), the Rams' Tex Schram (61-34), Green Bay's Ron Wolf (56-44), Minnesota's Jim Finks (54-41).

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