The New Orleans Saints were back at it Thursday working on third down situations and it was an area of emphasis for a very big reason.
“To be quite honest with everybody, since we've been here in 2006, this is one of the first football teams where they do have some decided advantages on third down,” said assistant head coach Joe Vitt after practice. “They’re going to create schematically, defensively and offensively, some real challenges for us.”
Converting on third downs in the fourth quarter could be a reason the Broncos have outscored their opponents 79-6 in the final frame. “I think for the first time in John’s career he truly has a quarterback that can put points up on the board,” Vitt added. “So, the margin of error is just a little bit better for the defense and they’re letting it go and they’re letting it flow.”
Denver has won two of their last three and they head into the bye week. After opening the season with a win against Pittsburgh, the Broncos lost at Atlanta and at home against Houston. The following week Denver beat Oakland, lost to New England before coming back with 35 unanswered points to defeat San Diego back on October 15.
“We are still kind of just scratching the surface as a team,” Denver head coach told New Orleans media this week in a teleconference. “We have a completely new offense and quarterback. We have a completely new defense and coordinator. The bye week helped us because we got some extra practice time to get more comfortable in our scheme and system.”
Manning is coming off of not playing an entire season as he recovers from neck surgery and nerve damage. It would be hard to tell if you look at his performance the last three weeks as he’s passed for an average of 300 yards and thrown three touchdowns in each of those three games.
“Obviously when you’re coming to a new team and coming off an injury, it’s hard to know what to expect,” Manning told local reporters this week. “I’d never been through anything like this in terms of missing an entire year and changing teams. This is the first time I ever had to do it. I really didn't know what to expect. I think you learn something new each week and there are different phases, the minicamps, OTA’s and training camp, preseason, regular season, division games. I’m still continuing to learn along the way about myself coming off the injury and about my new teammates, system whatnot. It’s definitely been a learning type of year and I’m still continuing to do that.”
It has to be an uncomfortable thought for Saints fans to think that Manning thinks the Denver offense has much more room to improve. The Saints defense ranks dead last in the NFL in overall defense and last week in Tampa Bay Josh Freeman threw for over 400 yards against the Black and Gold defense. “I don’t pay attention to rankings or statistics. I pay attention to what I see on film,” says Manning. “I still see guys flying around. You see guys playing with great effort. (Malcolm) Jenkins’ play probably won the game for them. It was a great effort play. Anytime you change a defensive coordinator, there’s always a feeling out process. I see guys making plays out there. They have a lot of great athletes.”
Saints wide receiver Joe Morgan has been ruled out for Sunday’s game in Denver due to a chest injury sustained in the third quarter against Tampa Bay. Morgan went to the hospital to get checked out Sunday night.
Tight end Daniel Graham (knee) has also been ruled out for Sunday’s game. Fellow tight end Jimmy Graham is recovering from a sprained ankle and was limited to individual drills at practice on Thursday.
Linebacker David Hawthorne was also limited. Joe Vitt said the linebacker “probably practiced a little bit faster today.” Hawthorne is trying to work himself back from a hamstring injury.
Also running back Darren Sproles missed a second straight practice due to an illness in the family. Vitt said Sproles should be available for the game on Sunday.
The Saints will wrap up the practice week on Friday and then depart for Denver. A move the team hopes will help the players adjust to the unique conditions of playing in Denver thanks to the altitude. Sunday night the Saints will seek a third straight win against (3-3) Denver.