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Can the Broncos upset the Saints?

I spoke with Canal St. Chronicles’ Maddy Hudack to find out.

Atlanta Falcons v New Orleans Saints
Can the Broncos slow down Hill?
Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images

There is a very real possibility that the 2020 Broncos play three games against Super Bowl teams. Patrick Mahomes is the bully in the backyard, and everyone knows the road through the AFC begins with Kansas City, but Sean Payton and the Saints are rolling.

To gain insight into these Saints, I spoke with Canal St. Chronicles’ Madeline Hudak.

1st and 10

According to DVOA, the Saints are the best team in football and a top 5 team on all sides of the ball. They actually improved with Taysom Hill in the lineup. What are their weaknesses?

Hudak: If I had to pick a few, I would say our interior o-line and DPI penalties. While we’re not near the top of the most-penalized teams this year, the Saints unfortunately are No. 1 in penalty yards incurred and pass interference penalties. We’re also No. 2 in defensive holding calls. Are all of these flags fairly awarded to us? Not necessarily; Emmanuel Sanders went on a podcast last month calling out the disparity in DPI and defensive holding calls he’s seen handed to New Orleans. That said, it’s something that could be prioritized in practice. Knowing that we’re a particularly hot penalty team, we could stand to be a bit cleaner than necessary.

The interior o-line is what took out Drew Brees against the 49ers, however, and was a primary factor in our 2019 Wild Card loss to Minnesota. It was one of the primary reasons I wasn’t worried about the Taysom Hill start. Based on the Falcons pass rush strategy and the similarities it drew to that Vikings game, Hill being the star of that playoff game made me pretty confident he’d be able to control the pocket against Atlanta. Part of the problem might frankly be that between Ryan Ramczyk and Terron Armstead flanking the outside line, they’re such a strong tandem that it just makes the interior the place to exploit.

Further unfortunate for us is the underwhelming play and injuries to those linemen. We’ll be without starting guard Andrus Peat this weekend after he suffered a concussion in Week 11. That leaves just Nick Easton and Cesar Ruiz to hold up that point on the line, with no room for further injuries. Ruiz, our first-round draft choice, has essentially found himself in a suboptimal position at right guard; drafted to move into the center role, the muddled offseason with shortened OTAs pretty much made that switch between Ruiz and our current center, Erik McCoy, near impossible. The problem is that that’s Ruiz’s strongest position, with McCoy as a better guard, and he’s just being taken advantage of. In fairness, this is more of an issue with Brees under center; he’s not particularly the most mobile in the pocket, so when it collapses instantaneously, it makes our offensive game plan near impossible to pull off. With Hill, it may not be as much of a dire weakness. Either way, as I suspect you guys will employ a similar pass rush strategy that found victory in last week’s win over Miami, so I’m sure you’ll exploit just that point on the line regardless.

The Broncos will need to make Hill's reads murky if they're going to win.
The Broncos will need to make Hill’s reads murky if they’re going to win.

2nd and 8

Since Drew Lock has come back into the lineup, I’ve noticed he finds more success against man to man coverage than when he’s trying to decipher the zone. What can he expect from Dennis Allen?

Hudak: Probably extremely solid man coverage. We played a lot more zone last year it seemed; a lot of that likely had to do with Marshon Lattimore being saddled with Eli Apple on the opposing corner and, accordingly, not having much trust with that tandem. No offense to Apple. Janoris Jenkins is a massive upgrade, and so we’ve just been able to open up our defensive schemes in a way most Saints fans haven’t seen in years, or potentially, in their lifetime. We also finally had our safety unit show up on Sundays in the last few weeks, and we’ve just become a lot more potent as a lockdown coverage team. A lot of that has to do with our absurd pass rush having a field day lately; we’ve finally figured out how to employ the pass rush with our coverage and that’s seemed to work best in man.

Last week against the Falcons, Matt Ryan held onto the ball for 2.84 seconds per drop-back, which was the eighth-highest among the 30 qualifying quarterbacks that week. Jenkins and our safety unit were incredibly solid in coverage, and that’s what led to a lot of those sacks last week, several of which were “coverage sacks.” So, that man coverage has allowed our pass rush to just destroy opposing quarterbacks. Drew Lock may be more adept at reading man coverage, but he’ll have difficulty getting past the read to finding actual open players, in the meantime, having to fend off Cameron Jordan, David Onyemata, Trey Hendrickson, Demario Davis, and the like.

3rd and 3

It’s hard to ignore how the Broncos beat the Dolphins by running the ball, establishing play action, and leaning on their defense. This Saints defense is incredible against the run. Are there any matchups on the line of scrimmage that could favor Denver?

Hudak: I’m genuinely trying to think of a point of weakness, and maybe I’m blanking, but there really isn’t an exploitable line of scrimmage matchup to be found. We have extremely formidable rushers in Jordan, Onyemata, Hendrickson and Marcus Davenport; Jordan was getting beat a bit earlier in the year, but he also draws a ton of coverage to his side that lets other guys in the line open up their play. Prior to the addition of Kwon Alexander, Demario Davis was drawn off coverage a few times – the Bears game was our worst of the season, if you’re looking for a blueprint – but since we acquired Alexander, our rush defense has just gotten more ridiculous.

Frankly, I just don’t see how the strategy from Denver’s victory last week carries over into this matchup. It feels like the Broncos game plan, from my vantage point, is looking at two options: play up your strengths no matter what, or play to New Orleans weaknesses, which will just always be the secondary no matter what. It’s honestly been somewhat hard to tell how strong our secondary is this year – certainly better than most years. But with such a potent pass rush, for a few weeks, it almost seemed like a band-aid over the porous secondary. If you can’t fix the coverage, make it so the quarterback doesn’t have time to get there. In turn, our front seven has just gotten that much stronger. What we’ll likely see is a mostly ineffective run game from Denver, but one that necessarily needs establishing. Oftentimes, the Saints can’t get a running game generated, but Payton will stubbornly stick with it until it opens up the passing game – even if it remains ineffective. I’d personally look to utilize the run game as a strategic tool for Lock, rather than the epicenter of Denver’s offensive game plan.

The Broncos may find running room hard to come by this weekend.
The Broncos may find running room hard to come by this weekend.

4th and 1

Are there any unsung Saints that Broncos Country ought to be aware of heading into Sunday? Who should we look for?

Hudak: I’m currently riding high on the Latavius Murray train. A lot of Saints fans miss Mark Ingram, and I get it. But frankly, Murray has been a key player on our offense for the past several weeks. When Brees went down last year, the starting quarterback may have been Teddy Bridgewater, but the star of the Saints offense, and sole operator it seemed at times, was Alvin Kamara. Unfortunately, we kind of ran him into the ground by making him an every-down back. Elusive Kamara is in spades, every-down back he is not. Not only did it plague him with injuries, but he also just isn’t that effective running up the middle. Murray, on the other hand, is quite potent at times. We just never hear about him in the pretty stacked New Orleans offense. Seeing as your run defense is more of a weakness than the passing defense, it wouldn’t surprise me if Murray has a huge game.

I’d also look out for David Onyemata. He gets lost in the formidable front seven talk, but he’s been extremely disruptive in the backfield with sacks, recovered fumbles and just overall great pass rush defense.

Extra Point

What’s your prediction for the game?

Hudak: I could easily see this being a game committed to the trenches, effectiveness or not. I have to go Saints though – we have a lot riding on the No. 1 seed currently, and a loss this weekend could risk just that. I’ll go 24-16, Saints.

Poll

Who ya got?

This poll is closed

  • 2%
    Broncos by a ton.
    (7 votes)
  • 33%
    Broncos by a little.
    (109 votes)
  • 37%
    Saints by a ton.
    (123 votes)
  • 26%
    Saints by a little.
    (85 votes)
324 votes total Vote Now