One of the better games in week 4 is tomorrow’s game featuring the New Orleans Saints, who are still looking for their first win, and the Green Bay Packers, who look to get back on track at Lambeau Field. The game is FOX’s nationally televised game and will kick off at 3:25pm CDT. Let’s take a look at some of the key matchups in this contest.
On paper, this one looks to be a shootout between 2 teams that feature very good QB’s. Drew Brees threw 46 TD passes last season and had nearly 5,500 yards passing. Those gaudy numbers will be tough to duplicate this season, but he’s still Drew Brees. So far, he has 7 TD passes to 5 INT’s in the Saints 3 losses. It’s hard to digest the Saints being winless at this point but don’t be fooled. This team can still light it up and likely will before long.
Aaron Rodgers also had an incredible 2011 season with 45 TD’s in just 15 games and over 4,600 total yards passing. This year, Rodgers has just 3 TD’s to 2 INT’s through 3 games. He has faced San Francisco’s, Chicago’s and Seattle’s defenses who are both solid against the pass. In overall defense, San Fran is ranked 11th, Chicago is ranked 6th and Seattle is 4th, just behind the Packers. By contrast, Brees has faced Washington, Carolina and Kansas City. KC leads those 3 in defensive ranking but is 16th.
Here are what I see as the key matchups to keep an eye on tomorrow:
Aaron Rodgers vs. the Saints defense
As Aaron Rodgers goes, so do the Packers. Despite the team’s “resurgence” in the run game, the Packer offense starts and finishes on the arm of Rodgers. His stats indicate that he has struggled of late and they surely are down, but the Packers have been in every game they have played. Some, ok mostly everyone would argue that they should be 2-1. He has played well enough to win.
The reigning league MVP will face the league’s 32nd (last) ranked defense tomorrow. Now, keep in mind that the NFL’s defensive ranking is solely based on total yards surrendered. There is much more to a defense’s makeup than yards. Last year, the Packers were last in total defense but were also one of the top defense’s in terms of taking the ball away. The Saints will likely do what they can to get after the ball and mask some of the issues they have stopping teams from moving the ball.
One issue that the offense has had is that Rodgers has been sacked 16 times in 3 games. Half of those came in one half last week at Seattle. Back in 2009, Rodgers faced a similar start and was under immense pressure during the team’s first half of the season. It led to some disappointing losses but the Pack made it to the playoffs as a wild card team. Rodgers was a big key to that team’s success and he will be again in 2012.
The Packer offensive line has to give Rodgers time to throw and be solid in their assignments. The Saints will surely dial up the pressure as they have seen the success other teams have had in getting to Rodgers and disrupting the team’s rhythm. Last week in the second half, Rodgers changed up the game plan a bit and went with more short routes mixed in with more run than they have in the past to slow down the pace and keep drives moving. At the outset, this is likely to be the best strategy.
If Rodgers can maintain patience, this Saints defense is likely to offer up an opportunity for the big play. As the run games improves, the play action will become more effective. The Pack found some success in the screen game last week and should look for more of those opportunities to take advantage of an aggressive Saints defensive attack.
Against 2 mobile QB’s, the Saints have given up more than 100 yards to QB’s when running. Now I wouldn’t put Rodgers in the same category as a RG3 or Cam Newton, but Rodgers does run well and is very smart about picking up yards with his feet. Hopefully the Pack can get Rodgers on the move and in a running lane if no one is open downfield.
Chances are however, there will be an option. The Saints are nearly last in every defensive category and they come up against a very good set of WR’s and TE’s. S Malcolm Jenkins is their best secondary player and the Pack had some success against him last year. WR Randall Cobb will likely be an important ally for Rodgers and look for them to get Cobb the ball and let his feet do the rest.
Drew Brees vs. the Packers secondary
Much like Rodgers for Green Bay, QB Drew Brees is a vital cog in the Saints offense. He has been one of the best QB’s in the league over the past 7 seasons. Brees has benefited from great talent in the passing game and returning as his supporting cast are TE Jimmy Graham, WR Lance Moore and WR Marques Colston. The Saints put up some good numbers on the Pack in last year’s opener but the Packer secondary has been playing much tighter and aren’t giving up the big plays and yards that they did last season.
Charles Woodson has moved back to safety in the basic 3-4 and still covers the slot in nickel. New CB Casey Hayward and S Jerron McMillian have already seen a fair amount of playing time and have played well. McMillian has rotated in at S when the team is out of their 3-4 base. McMillian already has an INT and could have had a 2nd vs. the Bears in week 2. He has also been good in run support. Hayward is playing ahead of a typical rookie curve and has jumped ahead of Jarrett Bush on the depth chart as the starting nickel back. This will pay great dividends as he continues to both learn and develop while contributing.
In week 1, 49er QB Alex Smith was able to take advantage of some of that Packer youth and hit WR Randy Moss for a TD when he was left uncovered in the middle of the field due to a miscommunication. Brees will be looking for just such an opportunity this week. The Pack need to be solid in their assignments and adjustments. They have not had much success blitzing their DB’s and with 3 very good pass catching threats out there, the Pack will need to pick their spots wisely with that strategy.
Having already thrown 5 INT’s this year, Brees will need to be smart with the ball. It seems no matter who is at DB for the Packers, they just keep taking the ball away. If the Packer defensive front is able to get pressure on Brees, the secondary will surely have a chance to make a play. He doesn’t run well and getting Brees out of the pocket could play into the hands of the Pack secondary. Hurried throws often mean location may not be where it needs to.
CB Tramon Williams seems to be much more recovered from that nerve damage in his shoulder he suffered early last season. Because of the injury, he wasn’t able to be as physical at times and it showed. He has played more press coverage this year and is back to his old self that we saw be so dominant in 2010.
Packer DB’s have all 4 of the team’s INT’s so far this year. I expect to see them come away with at least one tomorrow and they are due to take one to the house. No better time than against a great QB where any points scored on defense are rare and extremely helpful.
Saints RDE vs. Packers LT Marshall Newhouse
It seems like you can essentially put Newhouse and his matchup in every week’s keys to the game. Newhouse is the team’s weakest offensive lineman and unfortunately he’s at arguably the most vital spot at LT. His job is to protect Rodgers’ blind side and he has been seen in the backfield picking AR up off the turf way too many times already.
This week Newhouse only has the “mundane” task of handling Saints Pro Bowl RDE Will Smith. Smith has just 1 sack so far this year, but the Saints will surely overload on the right side to get pressure on Rodgers. Newhouse filled in last season when long-time LT Chad Clifton went down with a hamstring and back injury. His performance can be described as “OK” at best.
Good pass rushing teams found success late in the season and it was one of the reasons the Pack had a tough time in the playoff game vs. the Giants. If the Saints are blitzing and causing Green Bay to slide more protection to the left side, that will create some 1 on 1 matchups between Smith and Newhouse. Even when they pick up the blitz, Rodgers still has to find someone open to get the ball to and that has come at a premium this year.
Newhouse has to find a way to win this matchup. It’s like asking someone to just step in and go beat Manny Pacquiao (no Smith is no Pacquiao, but you get the point), but he has to find a way. Hopefully Newhouse is watching film and ready for Smith’s stout rush. He gets an incredible burst off the line at the snap so footwork is key. Pad level is key. Desire is key. I’d like to see Newhouse get a little mad for once and dig deep. It won’t be a quick pass every down so Rodgers absolutely has to have time to throw out of the 5-7 step drops.
One thing the Pack can do, if needed, is put more blockers in the backfield but that already doesn’t sound ideal as this team has been trying to establish some sort of running game. They can’t afford to leave their RB as a glorified blocker at all times or give up 1 or 2 more pass-catching options who now have to stay back and block.
Cedric Benson vs. the Saints defense
No the Packers aren’t going to try and feed Benson 25 times and I know they’re still Rodgers’ team. But the Saints’ defense is giving up an average of 215 rushing yards a game. Read that again because it’s not a typo. 215 yards/game and that’s not just because of Jamaal Charles’ incredible day last week. The Saints gave up over 200 to Carolina and over 150 to Washington on opening day.
This should give the Pack some early opportunities to test the Saints run defense, who are used to playing on a turf surface. Footing won’t be the same. All of Benson’s teams have been grass teams so he’s used to running, cutting etc out there.
Benson showed some improvement in the 2nd half last week and showed his patience waiting for the opening. He was able to cut back and pick up some steady yardage and keep drives alive. The primary purpose of Benson’s success relates back to the pass game and opening up some downfield shots.
Not just in the run game, Benson can also be a key in the short passing game. If Rodgers is facing pressure, Benson will become a safety valve and needs to find space and be a check down. Should Benson find early success, the Pack would be wise to keep feeding him and work the clock. They were able to do just that in the 2nd half last week and put a lot of pressure on Seattle’s offense to score fast.
Again, I’m not suggesting that the Packers switch hats and run it all day but Benson is, in fact, a 1,000 yard back. He’s capable of carrying a heavier load than could James Starks or Alex Green at this point. Success for Benson likely spells a Packer victory.
Packers OLB Clay Matthews vs. Saints LT Jermon Bushrod
Saints LT Jermon Bushrod went to last year’s Pro Bowl. Drew Brees has only been sacked 7 times this year. Bushrod will matchup against Clay Matthews, especially when the Packers are in base 3-4. Matthews has had good success in getting to the QB so far this year and already has 6 QB sacks. Pressure on Brees is key and the Packer attack starts with Matthews. The move back to the right side has seemed to help infuse some life into the Packers’ ability to pressure the passer.
As the Saints will likely try to overload on the right side, the Pack can have some success if they can force some 1 on 1 matchups between Bushrod and Matthews. Even an All Pro LT will have a tough time against Matthews 1 on 1 and it only takes a play or 2 and the Packers D holds on 3rd down or causes a turnover.
This will be a good matchup to watch and it at least bears mentioning that Bushrod will be on grass tomorrow versus the more sturdy turf he sees at home. Footing could become an issue and that gives an edge to a player that relies on his speed like Matthews does. CM3 does good job with his hands and disengaging an initial block so Bushrod will have to flash that Pro Bowl style if he wants to keep Matthews out of the backfield and in Brees’ grill.
The Green Bay Packers vs. their emotions
I had to throw this one in there. We all have seen the replay and heard the story ad nauseam this past week. Surely the Pack will want to come out and put the hurt on whoever the face. It just happens to be the 0-3 and very desperate New Orleans Saints. In last year’s opener, there was some chippiness between the 2 teams who at the time were the last 2 Super Bowl winners. There is a lot of pride in both locker rooms and both teams will be looking to right the ship.
The Packers have had their issues with penalties over the past few years but showed last year that they can clean it up. They will need to keep their cool as New Orleans will also be looking to kick this opponent while they are down. It would be devastating if the Pack gave the Saints extra chances and yards with a lack of control over their emotions.
The Packers need to come out focused on their opponent and assignments but most importantly, being ahead at the end of the game. If the Saints establish success, they tend to let loose a bit and are very demonstrative about their success. Don’t think they don’t want to punch the Packers in the mouth at Lambeau and start to re-establish themselves as contenders in the NFC South.
The Packer faithful need to be loud and proud and make the Saints work to hear the snap count. The Pack love their fans and this will feed their better sides. In the end and as you saw, I have the Pack winning this one. There’s no way they can’t.——————
Jason Perone is an independent sports blogger writing about the Packers on AllGreenBayPackers.comFollow Jason Perone: