8

September

2011 NFL Week One: Packers vs Saints Preview: The Saints Go Marching In….And Crawling Back Out

Absurdly long lockout: over.

An abbreviated free agency period: completed.

A preseason that dragged on longer than War and Peace: finished

It is time.  IT. IS. TIME……for Green Bay Packers regular season football.

The last time the Packers played a game of any meaning was that game against the Steelers in February.  For just over seven months, the Packers have been the reigning Super Bowl champions.

After the opening kickoff against the New Orleans Saints on national television, the reigning ends and the defending begins. It has been said by players on teams lucky enough to win back-to-back Super Bowls that the only thing tougher than chasing the crown is defending it.

The Packers’ opponent ought to know.

Last season, the then-defending champion Saints got off to a sluggish 4-3 start and never were able to catch the Atlanta Falcons for the NFC South title.  Instead they had to settle for a wild card and a trip to the 7-9 NFC West champion Seattle Seahawks where they were defeated 41-36 and done in by a bruising Marshawn Lynch touchdown run.

Like the Packers’ Super Bowl triumph, the disappointing end to the Saints’ season is a thing of the past.  The slate is clean and everyone for one week has the same record.

Let’s take a look at New Orleans.

Breaking down the Saints

As defending champions, the Packers don’t ease into their regular season schedule.  Instead they face team they could very well meet again in January for a trip to Super Bowl XLVI.

When discussing the New Orleans Saints, you have to begin with Drew Brees.  The calm and cool leader of the Saints offense is one of the most lethal quarterbacks in the game.  He isn’t as mobile as the Packers’ Aaron Rodgers but he is about as accurate and throws a pretty good deep ball.

While he doesn’t have the buffet of weapons that Rodgers does in the receiving corps, Brees still has chemistry with his playmakers.  With Marques Colston leading the way and Devery Henderson and Robert Meachem on the other side, Brees has a variety of targets to choose from.  With a creative play caller in head coach Sean Payton, the Saints passing attack rivals the Packers in terms of overall deadliness.  Throw in new stud TE Jimmy Graham and it’s almost like a mirror image of the Packers.

With Reggie Bush gone, Pierre Thomas and former Heisman Trophy winner Mark Ingram are the stars of the Saints rushing attack.  Payton is a Bill Parcells disciple, which means he likes versatile backs that can be powerful and yet still be effective in the passing game.

The Saints feature a bit of a revamped offensive line with former Bears center Olin Kreutz coming over in free agency.

The Saints defense is led by outspoken defensive coordinator Gregg Williams who was thought to be in line for the Packers job that Dom Capers eventually landed.   Williams is as aggressive as Capers is with the blitz and won’t mind throwing the kitchen sink at Rodgers at any given time in the game.

Big Shaun Rogers serves as the anchor of the Saints 3-4 defense and linebacker Jonathan Vilma is their best pass rusher.  The front lines of the Saints defense won’t knock your socks off, but it is a unit that is improving and Williams won’t settle for mediocrity.

The Saints secondary is the best unit on the defense.   Roman Harper and the improving Malcolm Jenkins are a tough safety duo and Tracy Porter and Jabari Greer have shown a knack for coming up with the big play when it is needed the most.

When the Packers have the ball….

Spread ‘em out.  Plus Finley.

That is what the Packers could be doing against the Saints.  With an embarrassment of riches at the wide receiver position plus one of the most dynamic tight ends in the game, the Packers likely could force the Saints linebacking corps into coverage, an area they are not that very adept at.

The Packers also will get to test their running back by committee approach.  Ryan Grant and James Starks could very well split carries in the beginning, but if one develops a hot hand look for Mike McCarthy to ride that horse all the way to the finish line as he usually does.

The Saints will likely blitz like crazy and try to keep Rodgers from killing them with his mobility.  Not allowing him to roll out will be crucial to stopping the Super Bowl XLV MVP and the Saints will test the Packers young offensive line often.

When the Saints have the ball….             

Payton likes to take his shots and the Packers will need to be on alert all game for the deep ball.  Brees is a brutally accurate quarterback and if he sees the open man, he will likely get him the ball.  The Saints like the intermediary routes more and they will keep the Packers corners running all over the field.

Much like the Packers, the Saints could utilize a two-headed backfield with Thomas and Ingram.  Thomas is the entrenched starter but Ingram’s athleticism intrigues Payton so it would not be surprising to see both of them carry the ball a fair amount of times.

The Packers need to unleash Clay Matthews to get to Brees.  He doesn’t get hit a whole lot thanks to his quick release, so getting to him quickly is crucial and I can’t think of a speedier defender than Matthews. The Saints likely don’t have an answer for the motor that drives the Claymaker.

Three keys to the game

1. Manage the hype The Saints experienced the carnival-like atmosphere of the opening game of the NFL season at home last year so they have the edge in this department on paper.  That said, the young Packers handled the hype of the Super Bowl very well last year but the game wasn’t played at Lambeau Field.

 This game is likely as close as Green Bay will ever get to hosting a Super Bowl, so the Packers should embrace the spotlight this week.  They need to be focused on the task at hand, yet it’s a special moment in Packers history and it should still be enjoyed by all.  McCarthy said much of the same this week.

2. Protect Rodgers One big thing the preseason exposed was that the Packers are very thin on the offensive line and the quarterbacks were taking more hits than was necessary.  TJ Lang beat out Derek Sherrod by default given how far the rookie has to go, and Chad Clifton (dare I say it) may finally be showing signs of his age.

 Bryan Bulaga is going to have to step up again as he did during the stretch run last year if the Packers have any hope of keeping their franchise quarterback upright and unharmed.   Josh Sitton should continue to play at the Pro Bowl-level he was playing at last year.

 3. Be yourselves Many people will be on McCarthy tomorrow night to run the ball and establish either Grant or Starks as the starting halfback.   That’s not who the Packers are.  They are a team with a deep receiving corps and have one of the elite quarterbacks in the NFL.  No one has yet been able to shut down the Packers passing game and they should keep at it.

“If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” the saying goes.

Prediction:

Packers 28, Saints 24

It’s going to be a truly fun atmosphere at Lambeau.  National TV and concerts by Kid Rock, Lady Antebellum and Maroon 5.

In regards to the football game itself, these are two of the most explosive offenses in the NFL and both defenses are thrown into the fire during the very first game of the season.  It’s a battle that likely will seesaw back and forth and won’t be decided until the final drive of the game.

It says here that the Packers have just a couple more playmakers on the offensive side of the football to make the difference.  The defense makes another patented late game stand and the Packers start off the defense of their Super Bowl title with a win.

Welcome back to football, folks.  It’s going to be a great season.

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Kris Burke is a sports writer covering the Green Bay Packers for AllGreenBayPackers.com and WTMJ in Milwaukee. He is a member of the Pro Football Writers of America (PFWA) and his work has been linked to by sites such as National Football Post and CBSSports.com. Follow @KrisLBurke

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3 Responses to “2011 NFL Week One: Packers vs Saints Preview: The Saints Go Marching In….And Crawling Back Out”

  1. BTF says:

    I’d rather see Grant grinding out the clock in the 4th quarter to protect a 2TD lead but I think your analysis is likely and it will be a see saw nerve jangler in a game. Sky over here just showed a re run of the Superbowl which has built anticipation nicely-and left 4 hours to kill…

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