The Broncos’ defense can’t catch a break. The tests keep coming, and the Broncos can’t press “pause” or delay the challenge.
Sunday, they’ll face Saints quarterback Drew Brees at New Orleans, where he has been at his best. Denver’s defense is wounded and trying to overcome key injuries to two of its best defenders: cornerback Aqib Talib and defensive end Derek Wolfe. The Saints won’t feel sorry for them. And Brees doesn’t need much help to exploit a defense.
“We’ve faced some really good quarterbacks, and this one has to be on top of the list. He’s exceptional,” Broncos coach Gary Kubiak said of Brees. “One of the finest players I’ve ever seen.”
Brees’ challenge will complete the Broncos’ gauntlet of facing the NFL’s top five passers this season within their first 10 games. There isn’t a team in the NFL that has faced that sort of competition, but the Broncos still have the top-ranked passing defense, giving up only 183.3 yards passing per game.
The No-Fly Zone prides itself on not letting any offense get the better of it. It will be the Saints’ No. 1 offense facing the Broncos’ No.1 passing defense.
Brees is a two-time NFL offensive player of the year, a three-time all-pro, a Super Bowl champion and MVP and a likely future Hall of Famer. His skills of spreading the football among eight, nine and sometimes 10 receivers in one game, along with his full command of the offense, have allowed Brees’ offense to remain atop the NFL nearly every season.
“He’s brilliant in his progressions. Drew can throw to spots with his eyes closed,” Kubiak said. “He knows all the spots on the field and knows where everybody is supposed to be. He plays the game extremely fast and with a great tempo. He’s just a great leader.”
New Orleans has a trio of young, high-caliber receivers with different skill sets: Brandin Cooks, Michael Thomas and Willie Snead. Tight end Coby Fleener also has a big role in the receiving game.
“Cooks is a smaller guy, but fast and at the same time explosive. He’s their gadget deep threat,” cornerback Bradley Roby said, giving a scouting report of his potential matchups. “Then Mike (Thomas), my ‘son’ from Ohio State, he’s doing a great job this year. He’s a possession receiver. I look forward to going against him. I’m sure he looks forward to going against me. And Snead, he’s a tough slot guy. He’s athletic. They get him the ball. Drew Brees does a great job of getting them the ball, and Fleener as well.
At the center controlling the offense is Brees, who never seems to be rattled or taken out of his element. He has been sacked only 12 times this season, one more than the fewest in the NFL. It’ll be a test for a Broncos’ defense that feeds off sacks: It has 28 this season, second in the NFL.
Brees, 37, is in the prime of his career, showing little signs of wearing down. He’s second in the NFL in yards passing despite playing one game fewer than the leader, Atlanta Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan. Brees has led the NFL in passing six times in his career.
“He takes great care of himself in the offseason,” Saints coach Sean Payton said. “He’s extremely detailed.”
Brees’ detailed studies make it certain he will attempt to follow the success of previous teams while also testing the Broncos’ cornerback depth if Aqib Talib misses another week. Brees, however, knows an elite defense when he sees one.
“You have to be ultra-efficient,” Brees said about facing the Broncos’ defense. “Certainly it’s a great challenge for us.”