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Broncos-Saints: Five things to watch Sunday night

DENVER – Five things to watch heading into Sunday’s inter-conference duel between the Broncos and Saints at Sports Authority Field at Mile High:

1. SO HOW DO YOU GET TO DREW BREES, ANYWAY?

Brees has been sacked six times this year and has thrown seven interceptions, so although he and the Saints’ passing game is difficult to contain, it is possible to make game-changing plays at his expense. The only problem is that the Broncos’ pass-rushing strength is from the outside, with Elvis Dumervil and Von Miller working the edges. But as the Broncos have experienced against the New England Patriots, the two Pro Bowlers can be defused from consistent pressure if the quarterback’s strengths lie in quick timing throws delivered before even speedy pass rushers can attack from the flanks.

The key lies in the defensive tackles. When Derek Wolfe moves inside to tackle on snaps when the Broncos go into their nickel package, he must be able to generate pressure — if not one-on-one, then by using stunts with Mitch Unrein or Justin Bannan. Unrein, Bannan, Wolfe and Kevin Vickerson must also get their hands up as quickly as possible to try and deflect a pass here and there, which would force Brees to move outside — and into the grasp of Miller or Dumervil.

The Broncos haven’t deflected or batted down many passes at the line of scrimmage recently. Sunday would be a good time to start — especially given the potential residual effect.

2. SEARCHING FOR THE FAST START — BUT NOT WITHOUT SACRIFICING THE SECOND HALF:

And that’s the key — not to replace the finishing flourish with a quick start, but to get the best of both worlds, and find some balance.

The answer lies in limiting mistakes. As noted earlier this week, correctable errors are, above all other factors, responsible for the Broncos’ league-worst minus-56 point differential. This isn’t necessarily something that can be fixed in practice; it comes down to game-time execution. Wholesale tactical changes might be unwise.

“You have to be careful of over-analyzing it and all of a sudden changing what you’re doing,” Peyton Manning said.

3. WAIT TO RUN HEAVILY.

Using the pass to set up the run sounds counter-intuitive, but it can work in the right situation — and could be the best way for the Broncos to build confidence in their running game as a whole. Willis McGahee averaged 6.3 yards per carry in the fourth quarter at San Diego two weeks ago, largely because the Chargers were dropping back in zones to compensate for the dicing they’d suffered at Peyton Manning’s surgical hands. In the first three quarters, McGahee had run for just 18 yards on 11 carries.

The Broncos want to find balance. Although Manning’s across-the-board numbers are impressive and have him on pace for his best season since 2004 — and the best for any quarterback in Broncos history — this isn’t the way they truly want to flourish, nor is it the best path long-term.

It’s not just McGahee who can benefit, but rookie Ronnie Hillman, who works best in space and could shatter what’s left of a fading foe’s resolve with a juke or two in a slightly more open field than he’s seen against opponents other than the Raiders.

4. PLAYING WITHOUT TRACY PORTER:

Since John Fox became Denver’s coach, four of eight players that missed two practices but participated in a third session leading up to a game played — most recently Willis McGahee last December. But Porter’s situation — the potential of seizures, which he admitted was “pretty scary,” makes caution the watchword.

“This is not your typical football injury: sprained ankle, busted-up knee,” Fox said.

So expect the Broncos to use alignments similar to what they used in San Diego: plenty of nickel formations, with Tony Carter entering as the fifth defensive back.  Whether they use dime depends on how they defend Saints tight end Jimmy Graham; if they do, look for Jim Leonhard to be the sixth defensive back, as was the case 13 days ago.

That brings us to …

5. TIGHT END — HERE WE GO AGAIN:

The Saints haven’t run a single play with four wide receivers this year — but have run just 17 plays without a tight end, so there’s no reason for the Broncos to use four cornerbacks, since anyone extra needs to be devoted to the prolific, yet banged-up, Graham.

The Broncos’ chronic struggles at covering tight ends have continued this year; five of the 11 touchdown catches against them have come from the position, including two by Antonio Gates last week. Gates exploited Denver’s safeties on his two scores; the Broncos might be inclined to use linebackers Wesley Woodyard or Danny Trevathan in coverage, which would further increase the emphasis on nickel packages.

If the Broncos are in a pinch, they may even try using Von Miller in coverage on Graham — especially if Brees’ quick throws neutralize his pass-rushing effectiveness. However, Miller was beaten by Owen Daniels for a touchdown in Week 3, and coverage is the one area of his game that needs refinement. Eventually he’ll flourish here; he needs time and experience.  But this might not be the right time to test him, given the quality of the opposing passing attack.

PREDICTION: Broncos 45, Saints 35.

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