Packers Must Start Fast in a Hostile Environment vs. Saints

Zach Kruse@@zachkruse2Senior Analyst IOctober 23, 2014

GREEN BAY, WI - SEPTEMBER 14:  Quarterback Aaron Rodgers #12 of the Green Bay Packers talks with head coach Mike McCarthy during the NFL game against the New York Jets at Lambeau Field on September 14, 2014 in Green Bay, Wisconsin. The Packers defeated the Jets 31-24.  (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
Christian Petersen/Getty Images

The Green Bay Packers' recent trend of starting fast must continue Sunday night in New Orleans, where a desperate football team and one of the most hostile settings in the NFL awaits. 

In fact, a slow start might be all it takes to put the Packers (5-2) on a long list of recent failures under the bright lights of the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. 

The Saints, a 2-4 team sensing the urgency of a slipping season, have won 14 straight prime-time games at home, dating back to 2009 and including the postseason. Those 14 wins have come by an average margin of victory of 20.1 points. 

Last season, Saints quarterback Drew Brees threw 12 touchdown passes and averaged almost 400 passing yards over three prime-time home games. New Orleans scored almost 40 points per contest and won all three games. Over his last 14 prime-time games at home, Brees has posted a passer rating above 100.0 13 times. His lowest during that span? 96.3. 

Drew Brees: Prime-Time Home Games in 2013
Cmp/AttYardsTD/INTRatingNO Points
vs. MIA30/394134/0144.538
vs. DAL34/413924/0139.049
vs. CAR30/423134/0124.431
New Orleans: 3-0

The last time the Saints were beat at home in prime time was December 2009. 

"It's about energy," head coach Mike McCarthy told reporters. "It's something they feed off, and rightfully so. Their home record stands up by itself. This is a tough place to play."

Even with white-hot quarterback Aaron Rodgers at the helm, the Packers can't expect to start slow and still beat Brees and the win-needy Saints in New Orleans. 

"It's tough in the NFL when you play on the road," Rodgers told reporters. "Crowd noise, using the field to your advantage. It's a fast turf. They play faster on that surface. Tough to play there."

MIAMI GARDENS, FL - OCTOBER 12: Aaron Rodgers #12 of the Green Bay Packers talks with head coach Mike McCarthy before the final play during a game against the Miami Dolphins at Sun Life Stadium on October 12, 2014 in Miami Gardens, Florida.  (Photo by Mik
Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

After starting slow in each of the team's first three games, the Packers have come out of the gates running recently. 

The Packers offense scored three straight touchdowns to open a Week 3 win over the Chicago Bears. Four days later, Green Bay put up 14 first-quarter points to help build a 28-0 lead at halftime over the Minnesota Vikings

The last two weeks have been equally impressive. 

In Miami, Rodgers marched the Packers 80 yards in nine plays for an opening touchdown. Against the Carolina Panthers last Sunday, he took Green Bay 80 yards in just six plays for another first-drive score. Overall, Rodgers completed all seven of his passes for 136 yards and two touchdowns on those two opening series. 

Aaron Rodgers: Fast Starter in 2014
Cmp/AttCmp %YardsTD/INTPasser Rating
First Quarter40/5474.1*531*5/0*135.6*
First Half85/12866.495710/0114.6
*Best of any quarter

The Packers could ask for nothing more than an opening touchdown drive to calm the waiting hysteria of the Superdome Sunday night. 

That said, any fast start from the offense could be thrown out the window if the defense isn't up to the task against Brees. 

The Packers defense has been no slouch early on in recent games. 

Since the Bears marched up and down the field on Green Bay in the first half of Week 4, the Packers have held the opposition to 12 plays, 19 yards and a single field goal on the opening drive of the last three games. In fact, the Packers outscored the Vikings, Dolphins and Panthers 42-3 in the first quarter and 66-6 in the first half. 

Opposing offenses have punted 12 times, turned over the football five times and failed on fourth down once during the first half of the last three games. Only twice (two field goals) over the last 21 first-half drives has an opposing offense scored on the Green Bay defense. 

Hot Starts: Packers in the First Half, Last 3 Weeks
First QuarterFirst Half
vs. MIN14-028-0
at MIA7-310-3
vs. CAR21-028-3
Packers: 3-0

Such a dominant start won't be expected in New Orleans, but playing well early could certainly help drain some of the life out of the venue. 

Of course, the flip side to a fast start is a poor one, in which the Saints could ride the wave of energy and land an early knockout blow. 

The last thing the Packers offense wants to do is provide any confidence or momentum for an ailing New Orleans defense, which ranks 28th in points (27.5/game), 24th in opposing passer rating (99.9) and 21st in yards (373.7). A couple early three-and-outs and a struggling unit could galvanize quickly. And defensive coordinator Rob Ryan would likely love the opportunity to get creative while defending a lead. 

The last thing the Packers defense wants to do is surrender any kind of early lead, which would ignite the crowd and allow the Saints to play the game at their pace.

Losing a fumble for a touchdown on the first series (see: Week 3) or spotting New Orleans a 21-3 lead (see: Week 2) won't cut it in the Big Easy.

NEW ORLEANS, LA - SEPTEMBER 21:  Drew Brees #9 of the New Orleans Saints reacts to a first down during the fourth quarter of a game against the Minnesota Vikings at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome on September 21, 2014 in New Orleans, Louisiana.  (Photo by Se
Sean Gardner/Getty Images

During the Saints' current winning streak at home in prime time, New Orleans has either led or been tied after the first quarter 10 times. The Saints have trailed at halftime only twice, with an average scoreline after 30 minutes of 20-9. 

"Playing in that dome, it's one of the loudest environments that you'll play in," McCarthy said. "The energy in the building. This is a big challenge for us."

The Saints are 2-0 at home this season, although the wins came over the Vikings in Teddy Bridgewater's NFL debut and the 1-5 Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who took the game to overtime. Brees has three interceptions and an uncharacteristic 89.9 passer rating at home (career rating of 100.2) so far. 

The perceived struggles of the Saints early in 2014 were not a point of emphasis for McCarthy.

"Trust me, we're not counting on Drew Brees coming in and not playing at the level he's played at," McCarthy said. "We're getting ready for a dynamic quarterback, and a dynamic offense."

Green Bay Packers @packers

McCarthy: We're very impressed with (the Saints). High-tempo offense. Drew Brees is an outstanding football player.

Back in 2008, that dynamic quarterback and offense scored 51 points in a rout of the Packers. While a game played during Rodgers' first season as a starter means nothing now, the idea of another shootout isn't at all out of reach. In fact, it's more or less expected.  

"You go into any game to shoot all your bullets," McCarthy said. "Hopefully you're hitting them and they aren't hitting you."

In a game when bullets will be flying all night, the Packers must make sure they connect on those shots fired early on. The winner of this NFC duel might just be the one who best handles the energy of the opening moments.  

Zach Kruse covers the NFC North for Bleacher Report. 

Follow @zachkruse2


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