Drew Brees and the New Orleans Saints had turned a 21-21 tie into an old fashioned blowout, scoring four touchdowns in the final 30 minutes of play against a Packers defense that had held up so well just a year before. Brees was deadly efficient that entire night in Novemeber 2008, completing 20-of-26 passes for 323 yards and four touchdowns—two of which went for 70 yards.
The 51 points was the beginning of the end for both Packers defensive coordinator Bob Sanders, who was fired after the season, and the Packers playoff chances. After coming into the game 5-5, the Packers left New Orleans beaten and battered at 5-6, limping to a 6-10 finish in Aaron Rodgers’ first season under center.
While the mastermind behind that disastrous performance is gone, the memory of that debacle in New Orleans still remains fresh in the minds of most of the Packers defenders who suffered through that Monday night embarrassment.
Thursday night’s Packers vs. Saints opener doesn’t serve as a rematch, per se, but the Packers are determined to prove that their new defensive scheme under Dom Capers is more than capable of stopping a Saints’ offense that’s still led by Brees and still as explosive as it was in 2008, just a year before they were to become world champions.
Here are some other things to watch in the Saints-Packers matchup:
Dealing with the hoopla
With hosting the NFL’s season opening Thursday night game comes all the bells and whistles of a defending Super Bowl champion. It’s the only game on for the national audience, who by now is starving for regular season NFL action. There is the pregame concert, with Kid Rock and a number of other entertainers scheduled to perform in front of stadium. The Packers will unveil another championship year on Lambeau Field’s facade. Jordin Sparks will sing the National Anthem. There is a ton of fanfare and media reporting before and after the contest.
All this could lead to an overwhelmed team that’s just seven months removed from reaching the peak of the NFL. And of course, the Saints have been there and done that after winning the Super Bowl the year before the Packers. They played the Vikings last September in the Thursday night opener and beat Minnesota. That experience should give the Saints a definite advantage in terms of dealing with the spectacle of the game, right?
Stop me if you’ve heard this before.
The Packers faced the same type of talk prior to the Super Bowl, where the Pittsburgh Steelers had the experience on the biggest stage and the Packers did not. Green Bay proceeded to race out to leads of 14-0 and 21-3 before holding on in the fourth quarter against the Super Bowl tested Steelers.
The Packers still need to handle the anticpation surrounding this game as well as they did the Super Bowl, but to think the Packers are behind the eight ball in this game because of the “experience factor” is as misguided as those who said it back in February. It’s about how each team plays during the 60 minutes on the field, not the Kid Rock concert or media-induced hysteria before it.
The differing ways in which the Packers and Saints approached their locked out offseason is certain to be a talking point heading into this game.
Brees was active throughout the lockout in organizing and running team workouts at Tulane University. He arranged for player insurance (in case of injury during the workout), sleeping quarters and travel plans to ensure maximum participation. As a result, the Saints were one of the more cohesive teams in the NFL during the offseason.
The Packers, on the other hand, had no such workouts. Quarterback Aaron Rodgers took heat from several media outlets during the summer because of his lack of initiative in setting up similar team activities for the Packers. Individual players worked out at times together, but no formal team outing occurred.
If the Saints come out early and look better than the Packers, expect the talk to start.
“Of course, the Saints held workouts during the offseason and look better to start the season because of it.”
Expect that talk to continue if the Packers proceed to lose Thursday night.
Either way, be sure of one thing: a couple of offseason workouts will not decide who wins or loses this game. There will be plenty who make a big deal out of how each team went about their business in this unique offseason, but don’t think for a second that one or two practices with no coaches present is the difference in this game. While it might have helped a touch to start training camp, the two team’s offseason differences have absolutely no bearing on the outcome of the Saints and Packers season opener.
Both the Saints and Packers are pass-first offenses, but the two also feature multi-back running games which could give the other some problems defensively.
The Saints were active this offseason in improving that part of their football team, as they moved back into the first round to draft former Heisman Trophy winner Mark Ingram out of Alabama. New Orleans also re-signed Pierre Thomas and snagged the small but talented Darren Sproles from San Diego to replace Reggie Bush, who the Saints traded to Miami. Due to injuries last season, the Saints were forced to throw the ball as much as any team in the NFL last season. The offense suffered as a result. Brees threw more interceptions than he has ever thrown in New Orleans. And the Saints fell in the playoffs to Seattle partly because of their ineffectiveness running the ball. This offseason, it was among the front office’s top priorities to turn that position from a weakness into a strength. And at least on paper, it looks like they succeeded. They’ll have the opportunity to be much more balanced this season and should better resemble the offense that took the league by storm in 2009.
The Packers get Ryan Grant back from an ankle injury suffered last season, and he’ll team with second-year player James Starks in a Green Bay backfield that also gives the Packers the option of staying more balanced than they were a year ago. Once Grant went out in Week 1 and Brandon Jackson was unable to shoulder the load, the Packers lost any legitimate threat in running the football. That shouldn’t be a problem to open the 2011 season. The Packers plan on giving Grant and Starks equal carries, but it’s more likely that they’ll feed the runner with the hot hand. The two look a combination that should at least give the Packers an above average runner every week of the season.
Most onlookers will be expecting an aerial shootout Thursday, and that might still be the case. But I’d expect both teams to attempt to run the football, especially early. For two teams that seem so pass-dominated, each have the players in the backfield to run a balanced offense and have success doing it.
With Dom Capers and Gregg Williams calling the plays for their respective defenses, both offenses will have to be ready for blitzes—and plenty of them.
Capers and Williams are two of the more aggressive defensive play callers in the NFL, and both the Packers and Saints defensive plans center around pressuring the quarterback and causing turnovers. In the end, whichever defensive coordinator has more success with their blitz packages Thursday night will likely be on the winning side after 60 minutes.
Both Rodgers and Brees are among the elite group of NFL quarterbacks, and giving them time in the pocket could spell disaster for either defense. Like the Packers saw in 2008, Brees can carve a defense with pin-point accuracy. Rodgers proved over the course of the Packers’ playoff run what he can do when protected.
The blitzes don’t always need to result in a sack, but making each quarterback uncomfortable is priority No. 1 for both Williams and Capers. Those blitzes will also highlight the play of the offensive line, which in the Packers case, has been shaky this preseason. That unit needs to be sharp on Thursday. Williams has certainly seen the Packers preseason tape, and he has to be licking his chops on some of the mistakes the offensive line has made. Rodgers can still play well under pressure, but it’s hard to see the Packers winning Thursday if the Saints are successful more often than not when Williams calls blitzes.
The new age
Thursday night should give us a look at the new age of NFL tight ends in the Packers’ Jermichael Finley and the Saints’ Jimmy Graham.
Finley, who missed 11 games in 2010 with a knee injury, is now near 100 percent healthy and hungry to prove that his production can finally match his enormous potential. The Packers line Finley up in traditional tight end formations, but they aren’t hesitant to split him wide to expose mismatches. In reality, almost any matchup a defense can throw at Finley is an advantage for the Packers. Linebackers can’t handle Finley’s speed and safeties typically don’t possess the size to cover Finley’s massive frame. Lining Finley up all over the field over exacerbates those potential mismatches.
The Saints defense should know a thing or two about tight ends like Finley, as Graham has a similar skill set. New Orleans also does a good job at lining Graham up in favorable matchups, and he’s been a big part of the Saints offense in the preseason. The Packers will have their hands full covering Graham underneath and especially in the red zone, where the Saints look to both Graham and Marques Colston to win one-on-one matchups with their size and athletic ability.
When it’s all said and done, viewers could be watching two of the NFC’s Pro Bowl tight ends on Thursday. Both Graham and Finley are talented enough to make that claim a realty by season’s end.——————
Zach Kruse is a 23-year-old sports journalist with a passion for the Green Bay Packers. He currently lives in Wisconsin and is working on his journalism degree, while also covering prep sports for The Dunn Co. News.
You can read more of Zach's Packers articles on AllGreenBayPackers.com.Follow @zachkruse2