Saints' surging defense cashes in gift card against QB-less Broncos

The New Orleans Saints’ defense was supposed to feast on this Thanksgiving Sunday against a Denver Broncos team that was stuck with all of its quarterbacks on the COVID-reserve list.

And, wow, did they ever.

The Saints (9-2) set a franchise record with just 112 yards allowed and forced three turnovers while winning their eighth straight game in a 31-3 rout. Broncos “quarterback” Kendall Hinton (a former Wake Forest quarterback who was actually serving as a practice-squad receiver) completed only 1 of 9 passes for 13 yards with zero touchdowns and two interceptions.

It didn’t even matter that Saints quarterback Taysom Hill suffered a big letdown in his second career start, completing just 9 of 16 passes for 78 yards, zero touchdowns and one interception of his own, while running for 44 yards and two touchdowns.

But don’t shortchange the Saints’ defense just because they rolled out the red carpet for this one. They’ve been feasting for a month now.

The Saints have now allowed only one touchdown in the past four weeks (a 38-3 win at Tampa Bay in Week 9, a 27-13 win over San Francisco in Week 10, a 24-9 win over Atlanta in Week 11).

“Look, we can have all of these conversations about being conservative offensively because of the way our defense played, because of the way they have been playing,” Hill said. “We have so much trust in those guys. That, to me, is really why we felt like we were gonna do what we did today.”

And they have only gotten stronger since adding linebacker Kwon Alexander at the trade deadline. Alexander recovered a fumble that was forced by safety Malcolm Jenkins in the second quarter Sunday and nearly returned it for a touchdown.

The other turnovers were interceptions by cornerback Janoris Jenkins (who limped off with a knee injury after the play) and safety C.J. Gardner-Johnson (who has been playing lights-out for the last month).

Saints cornerback Marshon Lattimore also broke up a third-down pass in the first quarter that should have been intercepted. Defensive end Cameron Jordan had a sack, giving him four over the past two weeks after a slow start to the season.

“Our job is just to play the game that’s in front of us,” said linebacker Demario Davis, who led the Saints with nine tackles. “It’s very unfortunate for a team to have to kind of go through that. You never expect to be playing a NFL game, and a team doesn’t have a quarterback active in the game. That’s different.”

QB breakdown: Hill’s final numbers would have been more disappointing if … you know … the Saints had actually needed him to play well. But it was still a bit disturbing that he looked so hesitant throughout the game after he had looked surprisingly poised and polished in last week’s debut win over the Falcons.

Hill’s hesitance helped lead to three sacks, two delay-of-game penalties and some other aborted plays early in the game. He held the ball instead of throwing a screen pass at one point, which led to an illegal-man-downfield penalty. He missed way too high on one downfield throw to tight end Jared Cook before throwing a couple downfield strikes to receiver Michael Thomas later.

But again, the Saints didn’t need Hill to take any chances. Both he and coach Sean Payton insisted that the game plan changed significantly after they learned of Denver’s plight. And Hill’s legs continued to be a big asset.

“I thought Taysom played well, but he played an entirely different type of game -- and that had a lot to do with me, relative to how we wanted to play this game,” Payton said. “I was in his ear 24-7 just about being smart with the football. There’s a few ways to lose a game like that -- and we weren’t interested in one of those.

“Taysom played this thing just how I wanted him to play it. And it doesn’t have to be aesthetically pleasing to be effective. The job is to win, and he did a good job of that.”

Pivotal player: On a day when the Saints ran the ball early and often (they ran on 44 of 63 plays), backup running back Latavius Murray came up huge with 124 yards and two touchdowns on 19 carries. It was his first 100-yard rushing game since last season, when he did it in back-to-back weeks while Alvin Kamara was sidelined by injuries.

Kamara, meanwhile, gained 54 yards on 11 carries and caught just one pass for negative-2 yards. Last week, Kamara didn’t catch a pass for the first time in his four-year career. So even though the workload in this game isn’t necessarily indicative of what to expect from New Orleans’ offense going forward, there is legitimate reason to be concerned about Kamara’s fantasy production as a pass catcher as long as Drew Brees is sidelined.

Finished business: With Sunday’s win, Payton has now beaten all 31 teams since being hired as as the Saints’ coach in 2006.