The Saints travel to new Mile High Stadium (Sports Authority Field) to face the Denver Broncos on prime time this Sunday night. The game will be televised nationally on NBC and it represents the first time the Saints will play in Denver since 2008 when they lost 32-34 back when Jay Cutler and Brandon Marshall were still the key players in their offense. A lot has happened to the Broncos since that day. Both teams feature explosive passing and on paper it looks like it could be a very high scoring shootout. Weather could be a factor, though, as the forecast calls for temperatures as low as 38 degrees. Not as bad as it could have been, though, when you consider it's currently 29 degrees and snowing over there! Here's what to expect from the Broncos and how the Saints match up.
Peyton Manning has the second best quarterback rating in the NFL currently, just behind Aaron Rodgers, so while his arm strength has maybe taken a slight hit since the injury he is still performing at a very high and efficient level. The Broncos are currently 6th overall in yards per game as an offense, and 4th overall passing. While their running game is just 23rd overall, they still run the ball well with Willis McGahee. It's when McGahee isn't in the lineup that the Broncos struggle mightily to get yards on the ground. They average a woeful 2.38 yards per carry when Willis McGahee isn't the ball carrier, as oppose to 4.3 yards a carry when he takes the handoff. So the Saints can likely afford to defend one dimensionally if and when McGahee is out of the game. The most dangerous playmaker on this offense is by far Demaryius Thomas, who is their most competent deep threat, but Manning spread the ball evenly between him, Eric Decker, Brandon Stokley, McGahee and tight ends Jacob Tamme and Joel Dreesen. None of these guys are particularly explosive or huge playmakers (with the exception of Thomas), but they all run very crisp routes, have outstanding hands and play solid. Manning is all about consistently getting 8-14 yards at a time passing and driving methodically down the field that way. And just when you get in a rhythm, he'll hurt you deep with Thomas. The Broncos' offensive line is also outstanding, particularly in pass blocking, led by left tackle Ryan Clady. This is a nightmare matchup for the Saints' defense from top to bottom, and a stop of any kind throughout the game will be considered a huge victory. On paper this doesn't end well at all for the Saints, who could easily give up over 500 yards of total offense and 40 points. If I'm the Saints I put 8 men in the box, stop the run, blitz a lot, and take huge risks. Force Manning to beat you vertically and show he still has arm strength. And yes, that will probably mean the Broncos will hit on some huge plays. Ultimately that is a risk I think they have to take.
The Broncos are 10th overall defensively, 10th against the pass and 18th against the run. Starting cornerback and former Saint Tracy Porter is not cleared to play in this game due to seizure symptoms and it doesn't look like he will suit up. That's too bad because I know he had this game circled on his calendar and he's played very well so far as a starter for the Broncos. The Saints will undoubtedly go after his replacement. The Broncos get after the quarterback primarily with Von Miller and Elvis Dumervil who are both superior pass rushers that will beat almost any lineman one on one in passing situations. If the Saints get down a couple scores and start throwing every play, Brees could get killed. Balance is SO SO important in this game to keep those guys honest, particularly since if Dumervil has a weakness, it's run support. Von Miller, on the other hand, is a complete player and one of the best linebackers in the entire league. He must be accounted for at all times. The rest of the Broncos' front four plays the run fairly well, but is less threatening in the pass rush. Still, when you've got two elite pass rushers on the field to worry about it's a tough defense to face. The Broncos also have long time Falcon Keith Brooking in the middle, but while he's experienced he doesn't play at the level he used to. On the back end Champ Bailey old but still a complete player that covers with the best of them. Mike Adams and Rahim Moore are solid but unspectacular safeties. This defense from top to bottom is pretty good. Frankly, as good as this team is on both offense and defense I'm shocked they are 3 and 3. This team is better than their record might indicate and it will take nothing short of the Saints' peak performance to have a shot in this one. Still, we know the Saints can score on anyone, no matter how good, when they are clicking. They'll need to click, because they can't expect any favors from the defense. The key, again though, is balance. And that means the Saints need to run the ball early in the game, and have it be working and looking good right from the start.
The Broncos were no threat whatsoever in the return game until they signed Trindon Holliday last week. How they plan to use him is still a little bit unknown, as he's only returned punts so far. Holliday is a high risk high reward player that has bad ball security and no tackle breaking ability, but has the kind of game breaking speed that would terrify anyone. Still, Thomas Morstead is leading the NFL in net yardage at the moment and if he plays well he should be able to keep him in check. The Broncos have a very solid kicker/punter duo in Matt Prater, who has not missed a single kick yet this season, and Britton Colquitt, who is tied for 4th overall in net average. So that tandem is every bit as solid if not slightly better than Hartley/Morstead.