2011 NFL Kickoff: Key Position Matchups for the Packers and Saints
The Packers will attempt to become the 12th straight defending Super Bowl Champion to win their season opener when the Saints come to Lambeau Field Thursday night.
Both teams are preseason favorites to return to the playoffs, and each hopes to open the 2011 season with a huge win over a premier team.
Several positional matchups will be huge factors in the outcome of the game.
Drew Brees vs. the Packer Secondary
After an outstanding year in 2009, Drew Brees slumped somewhat in the 2010 season, throwing a career-high 22 interceptions and fumbling nine times, as well as being bothered by a knee injury throughout the season. Brees did still throw for 4,620 yards and 33 touchdowns, amassing a passer rating of 90.9
Despite the 2010 "slump", Brees is still one of the NFL's elite quarterbacks, and will be a huge factor in the season opener.
Brees has plenty of targets who are capable of getting open in the defensive backfield, most notably Marques Colston and Devery Henderson. The Saints running backs also play important roles in their passing game.
The Packers secondary had a huge year in 2010, holding opponents to just 194.2 passing yards per game, which was fifth-best in the league.
The trio of Charles Woodson, Tramon Williams, and Sam Shields evolved into one of the better cornerback groups in the NFL, and safety Nick Collins played another Pro Bowl-caliber season.
Second-year safety Morgan Burnett is returning from a season-ending knee injury in 2010, and has shown his big-hit ability so far this preseason.
The Packers also have depth in their defensive backfield, as injuries last year forced inexperienced players into starting roles. Charlie Peprah, Jarrett Bush, and Pat Lee all saw playing time when starters went down last season, and rookie Davon House has impressed coaches in the preseason.
Green Bay's secondary plays very physical defense, and has the ability to disrupt routes and cause turnovers. Drew Brees will need to play a smart game in order to limit Green Bay takeaways.
Saints Running Game vs. the Packers Front 7
The Saints suffered a major hit to their running game in 2010 when starter Pierre Thomas was injured after only three games and sat for the majority of the season. New Orleans finished the season ranked 28th in rushing, averaging just 94.9 yards a game.
2011 should be a different story.
The Saints will feature a trio of running backs consisting of Thomas, rookie Mark Ingram, and former Charger Darren Sproles. The Saints will also start Korey Hall at fullback, a former Packer and proficient run-blocker.
The Saints' running backs bring many different running styles to the table, including speed, power, and elusiveness.
The Packers front seven has showed gaps early in the preseason, but has not been completely healthy to date.
The loss of Cullen Jenkins to free agency will definitely hurt the Packers, but end Mike Neal has been given high praise throughout training camp, and the Packers are confident in his abilities to hold down Jenkins' former position.
The rest of the Packers 3-4 line, consisting of nose tackle B.J. Raji and defensive end Ryan Pickett round out a solid defensive line.
The linebacking corps for the Packers consists of star pass-rusher Clay Matthews, middle linebackers A.J. Hawk and Desmond Bishop, and outside linebacker Erik Walden.
On paper this matchup looks tight, but in the past the Packers have been susceptible to the run. The Saints will attempt to control the clock by hammering the ball at the Packers.
Packers Wide Receivers vs. Saints Secondary
The Packers feature arguably the best group of wide receivers in all of the NFL. With receivers Greg Jennings, Donald Driver, James Jones, Jordy Nelson, and rookie Randall Cobb, the Packers have the ability to put five playmakers on the field at once.
Jennings posted huge numbers in 2010, catching 12 touchdowns on his way to 1,265 receiving yards. Driver played through a quad injury in 2010, but managed 565 yards and four touchdowns. Jones and Nelson combined for over a thousand reception yards and six touchdowns.
Cobb, a rookie, has shown flashes of brilliance in Packer training camp and looks to be a dynamic receiver, especially from the slot position.
In 2010 the Saints sported the fourth best passing defense in the NFL, giving up 193.9 yards a game.
The Saints defensive backfield features and up-and-coming star in safety Malcolm Jenkins. The third-year player and former first-round draft pick has become one of the better players in the Saints' secondary.
With Aaron Rodgers at the helm of the Packer offense, the Saints could be in for some trouble. The Packers simply have too many capable passing options. The Saints d-backs will have to play flawlessly, because Rodgers will pick apart any mistakes they make.
Jermichael Finley vs. the Saints Linebackers
After missing 11 games in the 2010 season to a knee injury, Jermichael Finley is set for a break-out 2011 campaign.
Finley is, stated frankly, a freak of nature. At 6'5", 247 pounds, and running a 4.82 second 40 yard dash, Finley is a monster of a tight end and an athlete.
In the five games he played in 2010, Finley caught 21 passes for 301 yards and a touchdown. Seven of those receptions went for gains of 20 yards or more.
In their base 4-3 defense the Saints will usually have Finley covered by a linebacker, likely Scott Shanle, Johnathon Casillas, or Will Herring. This will pose problems when playing man coverage, as Finley will easily exploit any of these matchups.
Expect the Saints to mix up their coverages in an attempt to lessen Finley's impact.
Special teams will play a huge role in a matchup of two NFC powerhouses.
The Saints will open the season without kicker Garrett Hartley, who is out with a hip flexor injury. Hartley has made a solid 85.7 percent of his field goals in his three-year career.
Instead the Saints will start 19-year veteran kicker John Kasay, signed recently as a free agent.
In the return game the Saints will use Devery Henderson, Robert Meachum and Darren Sproles as kick returners, while Lance Moore will likely return punts. The Saints will look to take advantage of the Packers' historically poor coverage units.
The Packers will start Mason Crosby at kicker once again this season, and Tim Masthay will resume his position at punter. Masthay may be the most underrated player on the Packers roster, and has developed into a very talented and dependable punter.
The Packers' return game has been shaky at best over the past few years, but gained a few weapons in the draft this year. Rookies Randall Cobb and Alex Green will handle kickoffs, and Cobb will happily relieve Tramon Williams from punt returning duties.
The Packers should be able to exploit the Saints secondary and come away with big numbers in the passing game. Aaron Rodgers has too many weapons for the Saints defense to guard everyone.
Green Bay head coach Mike McCarthy are huge proponents of the run and will attempt to establish a running game early. If the Packers are unsuccessful in their attempts to run the ball as we have seen in the past, foregoing the run and giving the ball to Rodgers is usually a successful backup plan.
The Saints will attempt to run the ball to control the clock and keep the powerful Packer offense off the field. The Packers will have to slow, if not stop, the Saints rushing attack to come away victorious.
Packers 31, Saints 21