NEW ORLEANS — It will be a tall order for the Denver Broncos as they try to avoid losing three consecutive road games for the first time since the ill-fated 2010 season (a 4-12 finish).
They have to handle a New Orleans Saints team that has the league’s No. 2 passing offense, No. 2 scoring offense and quarterback Drew Brees behind center. And Brees, in his 16th season, may somehow still be at the peak of his powers.
Brees has thrown 21 touchdown passes in eight games, is on pace for his fifth career 5,000-yard passing season, and in four previous home games this season Brees has already topped 400 yards passing twice.
“(I) cannot say enough about Drew Brees,” said Broncos defensive coordinator Wade Phillips. “I was lucky enough to be with him in San Diego. It seems like all of the great players that I’ve been with are great people, too, and he’s one of those guys.”
The Broncos have the league’s No. 1 pass defense, are second in sacks, and linebacker Von Miller is second in sacks at 9.5.
“We’re going against a great quarterback, arguably the best all-around quarterback that we have in the National Football League right now,” Miller said. “Going against him and great offensive linemen and a great offense is going to be incredibly tough.”
With that in mind, here are some things to watch for in Sunday’s game:
The lure to throw: The Saints are last in the league in pass defense — they are the only team surrendering 300 yards passing per game in the league. So, in the climate-controlled comfort of the Superdome, the Broncos will be enticed to throw the ball, early and often. The Saints are even tied for last in the league in sacks, with 11 — or 1.5 more than Miller has on his own. Every fiber in Gary Kubiak’s play-calling being will want quarterback Trevor Siemian to throw the ball. But the Broncos have to find a way to run the ball some, especially early when they have opened games winging it around for the most part this season. Bottom line is their passing game won’t win important games later in the season and they won’t see Siemian’s best if the Broncos can’t pair enough of a run game with it to make the play-action work.
Tackle better: The Broncos aren’t the same on run defense right now as they were last season. And it’s not surprising. Malik Jackson left in free agency, Vance Walker suffered a season-ending knee injury in training camp and Derek Wolfe is now out with an elbow fracture. Still, when the Broncos defenders do have a chance to make a play in the right gap, they have to make those plays. Too often against the Raiders last Sunday — Oakland rushed for 218 yards — the first defender on the scene slid off the tackle as the Broncos missed 11 tackles overall. Saints coach Sean Payton will certainly test the Broncos’ run defense early in Sunday’s game because he knows that is the best way to keep the Broncos’ rushers away from Brees. If the Broncos aren’t up to that test, they won’t win either.
Disrupt Brees: Look, you’re not going to rattle Brees. He’s seen too much, done too much and performed too well for too long to get too rattled. But he’s about timing and rhythm and nobody in the league can get rid of the ball more quickly to more of the right places on the field than he can. The Broncos have to find a way to upset the timing of the Saints’ offense, get Brees off his first read and still keep him from moving around the pocket to keep the play alive. That means, without Wolfe in the lineup, the Broncos have to create some pressure in the middle of the field and Miller has to have one of those days where everybody remembers how he became Super Bowl MVP.
Be ready: The Saints are smart, Brees is smart and they have plenty of digital video to sift through. And the Broncos should know the 30-20 loss to the Raiders is going to be the blueprint for others to use until the Broncos prove it’s not. That means the Broncos can expect Brees to go after Bradley Roby in coverage just like Derek Carr did. They can also expect some heavier formations to defend in the run game (because they didn’t against the Raiders) and they can expect the Saints’ defense, despite the statistical troubles it has had, to attack the edges of the Broncos’ formation on offense because folks in the league simply believe the Broncos can’t hold up right now. And this is another game that will show just how serious the Broncos are, or aren’t, about being in the AFC West race, because if they are as flat as they were in Oakland the score will look even worse.