NFL Preview - New Orleans (0-0) at Green Bay (0-0)
By Scott Garbarini, NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - The NFL will kick off its 2011 season in style on Thursday, as the last two Super Bowl winners square off at Lambeau Field in a marquee matchup between the Green Bay Packers and the New Orleans Saints.
The Packers earned the honor of hosting the league's traditional Thursday night lid-lifter by putting together a stupendous postseason run, culminating with last February's 31-25 ousting of the Pittsburgh Steelers in Super Bowl XLV, to capture the fourth Lombardi Trophy in franchise history in 2010. And with virtually every core member of that championship squad back in the fold for this season, Green Bay figures to be in the hunt once again this year.
This edition of the Packers appears sound on both sides of the ball, with star quarterback Aaron Rodgers still at the controls of a high-powered passing attack and 10 starters returning on a defense that surrendered the second- fewest points allowed in the NFL last season.
Rodgers, the catalyst of last winter's playoff march and MVP of the Packers' victory over the Steelers in Dallas, should have even more weapons at his disposal in 2011 if Green Bay can maintain good health, with standout tight end Jermichael Finley and running back Ryan Grant ready to go after missing the majority of this past year's campaign with injuries.
The Saints ended a 43-year title drought with a stirring 31-17 victory over Indianapolis in Super Bowl XLIV, then backed that unprecedented achievement up by winning 11 regular-season games (one more than the Packers) in 2010. An encore postseason performance was not to be, however, after New Orleans was upset by the 7-9 Seattle Seahawks in January's NFC Wild Card Playoffs.
That disappointing finish triggered several offseason moves designed to get the Saints back into contention. The team traded up in the first round of April's draft to land promising rookie running back Mark Ingram -- an addition that hastened the exit of highly-paid playmaker Reggie Bush from the Big Easy -- and beefed up the interior of the defensive line with the signings of massive tackles Aubrayo Franklin and Shaun Rogers.
New Orleans also selected University of California defensive end Cameron Jordan with the 24th overall pick in this past draft. The rookie will be asked to provide an impact immediately, as top pass rusher Will Smith will sit out both this game and the Saints' Week 2 contest due to a league-issued suspension for testing positive for a banned substance.
The Saints will still have Drew Brees under center, with the Super Bowl XLIV MVP taking aim at a sixth consecutive season with over 4,300 passing yards and at least 26 touchdowns. The accomplished quarterback is the architect of a potent offense that ranked third in the league in yards through the air in 2010.
The Packers will be attempting to continue a trend of teams beginning defense of their Super Bowl title with a win at home in the inaugural game of the NFL season. The last seven reigning world champions have prevailed under that scenario, with the Saints extending the streak with a 14-9 triumph over Minnesota at the Superdome last September.
Green Bay posted a 7-1 mark at Lambeau Field in 2010, including a 10-3 decision over rival Chicago in the regular-season finale to earn a playoff berth as the NFC's sixth and final seed.
Though Green Bay owns a 14-7 lead in the overall series, the Saints have won each of the last two meetings between the teams. The most recent matchup took place in 2008, with New Orleans rolling to a 51-29 Monday night triumph behind a 323-yard, four-touchdown effort from Brees. The Saints also posted a 34-27 decision at Lambeau Field in 2006, avenging a 52-3 shellacking at the hands of the Packers in Wisconsin the previous year.
Payton has emerged victorious in both of his two lifetime matchups with McCarthy and the Packers.
WHEN THE SAINTS HAVE THE BALL
New Orleans averaged nearly 280 net passing yards per game last season, with the deadly-accurate Brees (4620 passing yards, 33 TD, 22 INT) skillfully spreading the ball around to a bevy of quality targets, as eight New Orleans players caught 30 or more balls in 2010. The go-to receiver remains Marques Colston (84 receptions, 1023, 7 TD), who's eclipsed the 1,000-yard mark in four of his five professional seasons, with Robert Meachem (44 receptions, 5 TD) and Devery Henderson (34 receptions, 1 TD) both dangerous deep threats and the underrated Lance Moore (66 receptions, 8 TD) a sure-handed option out of the slot. The Saints are also expecting big things out of young tight end Jimmy Graham (31 receptions, 5 TD), an athletic former college basketball player who developed into a field-stretching presence late in his rookie year. The backfield has undergone some change, with Ingram slated to share time with dependable returnee Pierre Thomas (269 rushing yards, 2 TD, 29 receptions) and speedy free-agent pickup Darren Sproles (267 rushing yards, 59 receptions, 2 TD with Chargers) taking over Bush's old role as a receiver on passing downs. New Orleans will have two new starters on the offensive line, signing 14-year veteran Olin Kreutz to take over at center and former reserve Zach Strief replacing the released Jon Stinchcomb at right tackle.
Brees won't have an easy time navigating a Green Bay stop unit that led the NFL in pass efficiency defense and placed second in interceptions (24) during its 2010 championship campaign. A deep and talented secondary will once again be headlined by six-time All-Pro cornerback Charles Woodson (92 tackles, 2 sacks, 2 INT), with the 34-year-old flanked by capable counterparts Tramon Williams (57 tackles, 6 INT, 20 PD) and Sam Shields (29 tackles, 2 INT) and three-time Pro Bowler Nick Collins (70 tackles, 4 INT, 12 PD) stabilizing the back end from his free safety spot. The group is aided by a stout pass rush led by ferocious outside linebacker Clay Matthews (60 tackles, 13.5 sacks, 1 INT), the runner-up for last year's NFL Defensive Player of the Year award, and difference-making nose tackle B.J. Raji (39 tackles, 6.5 sacks). The line had to replace disruptor Cullen Jenkins, a free-agent defection to Philadelphia, at one of the ends, with 2010 second-round draft choice Mike Neal getting the first crack to fill that spot.
WHEN THE PACKERS HAVE THE BALL
Green Bay can go vertical as well, with Rodgers (3922 passing yards, 28 TD, 11 INT) also having a wealth of proven pass-catchers on hand as he directs the league's fifth-rated aerial assault (257.8 ypg) from a year ago. The Packers' wideout foursome of Greg Jennings (76 receptions, 1265 yards, 12 TD), venerable vet Donald Driver (51 receptions, 4 TD), Jordy Nelson (45 receptions, 2 TD) and James Jones (50 receptions, 5 TD) each surpassed 500 receiving yards during the 2010 regular season, while the dynamic Finley (21 receptions, 1 TD) would have easily hit that mark if not for a torn ACL he suffered in Week 5. Jennings brings a big-play element to Rodgers' arsenal, as the 2010 Pro Bowl honoree has averaged over 16 yards per catch in each of the last four years, while fourth- year pro Nelson broke out for 140 yards and a touchdown on nine grabs in the Super Bowl. Grant had rushed for over 1,200 yards in two straight years before sustaining a season-ending ankle injury in the 2010 opener, which helped then- rookie James Starks (101 rushing yards) emerge into a factor during the team's postseason run. The duo are expected to split backfield reps in the coming year, with McCarthy likely riding the hot hand. The Packers enter the season seeking a new third-down back after Brandon Jackson left for Cleveland via free agency.
The Saints can also be rather stingy against the pass, having yielded the fourth-fewest yards through the air (193.9 ypg) in 2010. All four starters return to last year's secondary as well, with Jabari Greer (61 tackles, 2 INT, 12 PD) and Tracy Porter (60 tackles, 1 INT) forming a solid cornerback duo and rising star Malcom Jenkins (64 tackles, 2 INT, 12 PD) and noted enforcer Roman Harper (94 tackles, 3 sacks, 1 INT) steadily manning the back line. Payton would like for the corps to be more opportunistic, however, after New Orleans mustered a league-low nine interceptions last season. With Smith (39 tackles, 5.5 sacks) suspended for Thursday's tilt, fourth-year tackle Sedrick Ellis (44 tackles, 6 sacks) becomes the team's best pass rusher of note, so look for aggressive coordinator Gregg Williams to dial up plenty of blitz packages for the game. The Saints were an ordinary 16th overall against the run (112.3 ypg) last year, but that ranking could improve with the additions of Franklin (39 tackles with 49ers) and Rogers (17 tackles, 2 sacks), a veteran tandem that brings nearly a combined 670 pounds of girth to the middle of the line.
KEYS TO THE GAME
The turnover battle: The Saints were sensational in this all-important category during their 2009 championship season, registering a plus-11 takeaway-to- giveaway ratio, but were minus-six a year ago and Brees threw a career-high 22 interceptions. They can't afford to be careless with the ball in this game, as the Packers were 10-0 (including the playoffs) last season when they forced more turnovers than the opposition.
Getting pressure on the quarterback: This shouldn't be much of a problem for Green Bay, which tied for second in the league with 47 sacks in 2010. Williams may need to get creative, however, to offset the absence of Smith, who's averaged nearly eight sacks per year since entering the NFL in 2004. Players like Jordan and fellow end Turk McBride (33 tackles, 5 sacks with Lions) are going to need to step up and make the pocket uncomfortable for Rodgers.
Kasay at the bat: The Saints signed grizzled veteran John Kasay late in the preseason after regular kicker Garrett Hartley came down with a hip injury that will sideline him for at least a couple more weeks. The 41-year-old has tons of experience and a great track record, but he missed both a 39-yard field goal attempt and a point-after try in the team's final exhibition contest.
It's hard to ask for a better game to get the season underway and put the bad taste left by the lockout behind, as both teams feature winning pedigrees, high-scoring offenses and premier quarterbacks. The difference could come down to the defenses, however, and specifically how effective each is in causing trouble for the opposing passer. If that's the case, then advantage Packers, as Matthews and his mates should be a handful for New Orleans' rebuilt offensive line throughout the evening. Though Brees and the Saints will provide a stern challenge to the defending champs, Green Bay is quite capable of matching their foe's firepower and keeping the streak of Super Bowl winners getting their subsequent seasons off to positive starts alive.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Packers 27, Saints 23
09/08 14:28:41 ET