DENVER – Listen to Vic Fangio and you’d never guess the Broncos were preparing to face a quarterback making just his second career start as the New Orleans Saints’ Taysom Hill is expected to do Sunday at empty Empower Field.
“I was turning on the tape maybe to see something different, but it’s the Saints offense they’ve been running ever since Sean’s been there,” Fangio said of Saints coach Sean Payton, whose decision to start Hill over Jameis Winston paid off in a 24-9 win over the Falcons.
“Other than the quarterback designed runs, which are unique to him, they ran their offense,” Fangio said.
Hill looked comfortable under center, completing all but five of his 23 throws for 233 yards and rushing for 51 yards and two touchdowns in place of Drew Brees, who has multiple fractured ribs.
“He’s a good quarterback,” Fangio said of Hill, the versatile 30-year-old who has overcome an injury-riddled college career to make the most of his many gifts as a 6-foot-2, 230-pound wrecking ball with 4.4-second speed.
In Hill’s four years in New Orleans, Payton has found ways to use him at quarterback, tight end, flanker, slot receiver, halfback and fullback and as a blocker or gunner on special teams.
What impressed Fangio was Hill’s first start at quarterback.
“If he keeps it up the way he played last week, he’ll be considered the third best quarterback in Saints history behind Drew Brees and Archie Manning,” Fangio declared.
Safety Kareem Jackson considers it both a blessing and a curse to see Hill taking snaps.
“He’s a versatile guy. He does a lot for that team,” Jackson said. “With him having to play quarterback now, a lot of that stuff will be cut down as far as him being on special teams and doing all the other things.
“He’s still a dual-threat guy. He can run and has a strong arm. Preparing for a dual-threat quarterback is always the toughest because you can’t mimic that look in practice as far as their running ability.”
Jeff Driskel, the Broncos’ athletic No. 3 quarterback, gave it his best shot Wednesday but he tested positive for COVID-19 on Thanksgiving, leaving Brett Rypien and Blake Bortles to take over the Hill imitations on the scout team.
Although Broncos QB Drew Lock has started just 13 games in the NFL, he’ll face a team featuring a quarterback with even less experience for the third time this season.
The good thing is it’s not a radically different Saints offense that Denver’s defense is preparing to face, Fangio said.
“I don’t think the Saints changed their offense at all because he was the quarterback. They still ran plays and concepts, formations and personnel groups that they ran with Drew Brees,” Fangio said. “But he has the added dimensions of the quarterback designed runs.”
Other subplots Sunday when the Saints seek their first win in Denver since 1994:
Saints WR Emmanuel Sanders returns to Denver, a city he called “wide receiver heaven” when he arrived to play with Peyton Manning before souring on his situation and famously saying the Broncos were in a “world of suck” by the time he was traded to San Francisco last year.
With Diontae Spencer going on the reserve/COVID-19 list Friday, the Broncos again had to scramble in their return game. CB Bryce Callahan handled punts and rookie WR Tyrie Cleveland handled kickoffs when Spencer was out three weeks with a shoulder injury. But Callahan is dealing with a foot injury this week.
The game pits one of the league’s top defensive minds in Fangio and one of the NFL’s most creative offensive minds in Payton.
Asked if he enjoyed matching wits with Payton, Fangio retorted: “No, I’d rather go against somebody less capable than he is. Sean is an excellent play caller. He’s actually getting better — that’s hard to believe — but I’ve always felt he’s one of the best play callers in the league.”
Saints RB Alvin Kamara is curious to see whether opponents reduce the frequency with which they assign a defender to spy him because they now also must guard against the threat Hill poses as a scrambler.
“There’s always a chance that he’ll take off,” Kamara said. “So I don’t know if they’re going to put two dudes, like the guy that’s guarding me, if they’re going to take him off me and put him on Taysom, so that I have a better chance of catching the check-down ... but you’ve got to account for Taysom’s ability to run the ball.”
AP Sports Writer Brett Martel contributed to this report.