Super Bowl XLIV will long live in the minds of New Orleans Saints fans as it the day time the Black and Gold finally won a championship. It was also the last time the Saints faced quarterback Peyton Manning in a game.
A lot has happened since the 2009 season. Manning is no longer with the Indianapolis Colts as he is now the signal caller for Denver. The Saints have only been able to advance to the second round of the playoffs once and this season is dealing with the loss of coaches due to suspensions. Still, the excitement of a matchup once again between two high powered offenses facing off Sunday night in Denver is a national story line.
Saints quarterback Drew Brees has thrown for 1193 yards in the last three games combined to go with 11 touchdowns to just two interceptions. “Definitely the feel that you want during a game is that no matter what play is called, we are going to make it work and we have the opportunity to really make something happen,” says Saints quarterback Drew Brees. “Obviously there was that stretch last week, and the week before, and the week before, where we definitely had those moments for a prolonged period of time throughout the course of a game.”
Manning seems to be feeling much better about the offense as of late. Denver opened the season 1-2 with the former Colts QB tossing five touchdowns but three interceptions as well and a passer rating of 85.6. In the last three games, Manning has thrown for at least 300 yards while throwing three touchdowns in each of those games and thrown just one interception.
It’s hard to believe that Manning missed the entire season last year as he recovered from neck surgery and nerve damage in that area. Saints defenders say it’s hard to tell on film as well. “I think he’s making all the throws still. I think he’s still very capable in the pocket,” says Saints safety Roman Harper. “His play action is amazing still. He’s getting his head up, getting the ball out quick and he doesn't get sacked or get hit a lot either.”
The last time Denver was on the field was two weeks ago in San Diego as the Broncos came back from a 24-0 halftime deficit to win the game 35-24. Those 35 unanswered points didn't just come from the offense as the Broncos defense had a 65-yard fumble return and 46 yard interception returns for touchdowns.
Still the Denver offense is what likely is worrying Saints fans and that’s probably due to the way the Saints defense has played. Last week against Tampa Bay, quarterback Josh Freeman who has only thrown over 300 yards twice this season Saints game included, threw for 420 yards and three touchdowns in the loss. The Bucs offense gained 513 total yards bringing the season total of yards surrendered by the Saints defense to 2,793. That would be the most yards allowed by the way since 1950.
The Saints offense will be challenged as the Denver, according to Joe Vitt, is third in the league in quarterback pressures and primarily do so with just their front four. “It’s a big challenge. It’s like any of these teams with really good pass rushers where you really got to rise up to the occasion,” says Saints right tackle Zach Strief. “The combination of having a team that can give pressure and having great corners on the edge is dangerous and that’s how that defense is built. They’re going to pressure the quarterback and make plays on the ball.”
One way to help keep the pass rush at bay is to run the football something the Saints haven’t done very well this season. Heading into Sunday’s game, the Saints rushing attack ranks last in the NFL averaging just 76.2 yards per game. The Saints gained just 81 yards on the ground last week at Tampa Bay but did have 26 attempts showing the team made an effort to at least do so.
“Our running game is improving. We just go to keep going at it,” says Saints running back Pierre Thomas. “We just got to keep calling the plays and keep running and executing. We got to come together as a team. It’s not just the running backs. It’s the offensive line, the receivers, everybody. We got to come together and really buckle down and get focused and get into this run game and really establishing this run game.”
Brees versus Manning is certainly how this game will be presented and teased leading into kickoff and the two quarterbacks surely will be a big reason one team wins. To me however, the key of the game is how the Saints defense can limit the damage by Manning and the Broncos offense.
The Saints offense must help the defense out by limiting the amount of time they are on the field. Establishing time consuming drives is essential. It keeps the defense fresh and more importantly Manning on the bench. Running the football has to be in the game plan. Like last week against at the time the 4th ranked rushing defense in the NFL, the Saints didn't have a ton of success in terms of yards per carry or overall yards but the threat and consistency of running the ball helped. The passing game was explosive and effective and a similar game plan Sunday should be the plan. The short passing game with screen passes or throws to the running back out of the backfield can also serve as pseudo running game and help keep the Broncos pass rush at bay.
Vitt’s return will help in the team’s game management and provide additional emotion but at the end of the day it’ll be about the players making plays on the field.
That’s where I’m concerned. The Saints defense is having trouble tackling, covering receivers, and pressuring the quarterback. Add the way this team sometimes struggles offensively in the cold (temps will be in the low 30's at kickoff), and you have settings for it to not be a good day.
Brees is playing at a high level again and San Diego did manage to put up 24 first half points against Denver’s defense in the first half before blowing the lead and the game two weeks ago. So I do think the Saints offense will produce points. The question is will it be enough? This game likely will go down to who has the ball last and the Saints defense has had trouble all season getting off the field and making big plays. Manning I feel also hasn't forgotten the last time he played the Saints it was one of his passes that cost him a second championship. I think Denver makes enough plays offensively to win 38-31.