Just hours after the illustrious Kid Rock will serenade Green Bay, Wisconsin with a catalog of heart-wrenching ballads, the Saints and Packers will kick off the NFL season on Thursday night to a tizzy of speculation about which one of the past two Super Bowl champions has the mettle to take it the distance this year. At the crux of the matter will be the ability of a reinvigorated Saints offense to find a run-pass balance that eluded them in 2010, when Drew Brees threw a league-high 658 passes and the Saints offense struggled on the ground. The Packers D, run by former Saints defensive back coach Dom Capers, ranked fifth in the NFL last year and is led by veteran cornerback Charles Woodson and outside linebacker Clay Matthews. Here’s the lowdown on what to look out for when these two units hit the field.
By some accounts, Drew Brees had an off-year last year, when he tossed a career high 22 picks, but in the process he also threw 33 touchdown passes and for over 4600 yards. Brees has been deadly in prime-time games since he joined the Saints and eviscerated the Packers Defense on Monday Night Football in 2008, when he was 20 of 26 for 323 yards and four touchdowns. He has a group of talented receivers at his disposal and an aggressive pass-loving coach in Sean Payton, so look for the Saints to throw early and often.
Capers has said Brees is too good to blitz incessantly and will mostly rely on cover-heavy packages and the skills of his secondary, which is lead by ball-hawking veteran cornerback Charles Woodson and free safety Nick Collins. Linebacker Clay Matthews terrorized quarterbacks with 13.5 sacks last year and will likely be lined up against Saints left tackle Jermon Bushrod, which will be a key match up to watch. The X factor, and I’ll say it, even though it’s starting to sound like a broken record, could be Saints tight end Jimmy Graham, who is posed for a breakout season and will create huge match up problems for the Packers linebackers and safeties in coverage.
In their season preview, the New Orleans Times-Picayune dedicated not only the cover, but a huge portion of their coverage to the Saints revamped running game. The addition of Heisman Trophy-winner Mark Ingram and former Chargers running back Darren Sproles, alongside a healthy Pierre Thomas, evokes memories of 2009, when the Saints three-headed running approach provided more firepower to an already explosive offensive.
Sean Payton doesn’t believe in feature backs and Ingram and Thomas will likely split carries with Sproles seeing mostly third-down touches. Don’t be surprised to see Ingram get the majority of the carries around the goal line, as he’s shown himself to be a powerful inside running back.
The Packers defense was 18th against the run last year and led by A.J. Hawk, who managed to make 111 tackles despite being burdened by a 2-pound mane of silky-brown Pert Plus-conditioned hair. Middle linebacker Desmond Bishop is equally quick and the two will make it difficult for the Saints to break big runs.
Matchups to Watch
In the interest of not hammering the importance of Jimmy Graham to death, I’ll go with with Packers nose tackle B.J. Raji v. Saints Center Olin Kreutz. Raji, nicknamed “The Freezer,” was a 2009 draft pick and became the anchor of the Packer’s line last year when he recorded 6.5 sacks. Kreutz was acquired during the offseason to replace Jonathan Goodwin and his ability to fight off inside penetration will be key for the running game and to provide Brees with a clear field of vision over the middle.