Saints look to ignite ground game vs. Broncos

NEW ORLEANS — The defending Super Bowl champion Denver Broncos, who last year had the most suffocating defense in the NFL, have been vulnerable this season stopping the run.

The New Orleans Saints, who usually live and die on the ageless right arm of Drew Brees, have found some offensive balance by running the ball effectively in back-to-back wins to climb back into playoff contention.

While Sunday's game at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome pits Brees against the Broncos' top-ranked pass defense, the outcome could rest on how well the Saints (4-4) can run the ball to keep Denver's defense working overtime. The Broncos (6-3) saw that play out last week as they were on the field for 80 snaps in a 30-20 road loss to the Oakland Raiders.

“It's concerning because we've been really good at (stopping the run), and then we've given up almost 400 yards lately,” Denver coach Gary Kubiak said. “There's also been a lot of big short-yardage plays where we thought we were there to make the tackle, and we didn't tackle well.”

The Raiders shredded the Broncos last week for 218 yards on 43 carries. Denver has allowed eight rushes of 20 yards or more, third most in the NFL, and it is surrendering the fourth-most rushing yards overall (128.6 per game).

The Saints come into Sunday's game knowing they can throw the ball – Brees leads the NFL with an average of 336.1 passing yards per game. New Orleans has also found a spark with its dormant running game.

The Saints rushed for 248 yards on 42 carries in a 41-23 road victory over the San Francisco 49ers last week, the most rushing yards in a game in coach Sean Payton's 11 seasons. Tim Hightower and Mark Ingram each have had a 100-yard game in the last two weeks.

Payton figures to keeping looking for balance, especially since the Broncos have one of the league's pass rushers in linebacker Von Miller.

“He's elite, and you would say, clearly, the best pass rusher in our game right now,” Payton said. “He wins with speed, he wins with power, his get-off is outstanding. If you sit there with the same cadence, you know at the breath of 'hut' he's going to be one step past your tackle. He's a fantastic player.”

Kubiak was effusive in his praise of Brees, who has two 400-yard passing games this season along with another three games of at least 323 yards. Brees' 21 touchdown passes rank second in the league to Atlanta's Matt Ryan (23), and he has thrown just five interceptions.

Brees also is the NFC's top third-down passer, completing 72.1 percent, with eight touchdowns against one interception. He ranks third behind Sam Bradford of Minnesota and Aaron Rodgers of Green Bay in fourth-quarter passing.

“We've faced a lot of good quarterbacks, and this one's got to be on top of the list,” Kubiak said. “He's exceptional. One of the finest players I've ever seen from being a quarterback guy and watching that position.”

“Drew's the best passer in the league right now,” Miller said. “He's leading the league in passing yards, and it's not the first time he's done it. Over the years, he's been (Nos.) 1 or 2. He's just a great quarterback. He goes through all his progressions. He's got a high IQ.”

The Broncos allow a league-low 183.3 yards passing per game.

“It's a tremendous challenge,” Brees said. “They're defending Super Bowl champs for a reason. It's because there's really not a weak link in that defense. Their front four – or really front five – rushers, to their linebacker corps to their secondary, it's top notch. All those guys are play-makers. They fly around, they get after you.”

Trevor Siemian, Denver's first-year starter at quarterback, has struggled with a left shoulder injury, completing just 59.8 percent of his passes with 10 TDs and five interceptions. He took several big hits against the Raiders.

Siemian bounced back from a rocky 1-of-7 start to throw for 286 yards and two scores against the Raiders. The Broncos, however, have failed to pick up a first down on 25 of their last 51 possessions in their last four games, and they've gone 2-2 in those games.

“We've got to find some consistency,” Kubiak said. “I feel really good about what Trevor's doing, but, like any other player, he's got to get better.”

For the Saints, starting left tackle Terron Armstead (knee) was held out of Wednesday's practice, and linebacker Dannell Ellerbe (quad) was limited. Denver cornerback Aqib Talib (lower back), center Matt Paradis (hips), strong safety T.J. Ward (illness) and defensive end Derek Wolfe (elbow) did not practice. Inside linebacker Brandon Marshall (hamstring) was limited.