The Saints' Five "Keys to Success" Against the Packers

The Packers and Saints square off on Thursday Night

For Saints fans, this is the moment we’ve all been waiting for.  Although the stinging sensation of last season’s devastating loss in Seattle still lingers in our heads, this week marks the beginning of the end of that horrible feeling.  On Thursday night, the Black and Gold will be in one of the more historic sites in all of sports, Lambeau Field, as they take on the defending World Champion Green Bay Packers in what is expected to be an offensive showdown.  Hang on to your seats, because this is going to be a wild one. 

With the first game of the season growing near, one must wonder how the Saints plan to conquer the likes of quarterback Aaron Rodgers and head coach Mike McCarthy.  After all, this combo shredded opposing defenses, and being matched with a defense featuring the talents of cornerback Charles Woodson and linebacker Clay Matthews made victory that much easier to obtain.

Below are my top five “Keys to Victory” for the Saints on Thursday night.  Please note that this is simply my opinion, and they are in no particular order of importance.  For whenever two powerhouses like the Saints and Packers clash, the outcome is difficult to predict.

1.  First things first for the Saints:  Try to stay focused while being in hostile territory and with every NFL fan watching.  The Packers thrive at home, so the Saints must stay reserved and ready for the challenge that lies ahead.

Playing at Lambeau Field has never been an easy task.  In 2010, that statement became as real as ever.  Of the eight home games for the Packers in 2010, the squad won seven of them (Although they were technically the home team in their Super Bowl victory against the Pittsburgh Steelers, I’m excluding it due to it being played away from Lambeau.).  As expected, the boys in Green and Yellow also performed better individually while in Green Bay.  While only having an 88.4 passer rating in away games in 2010, Rodgers had an astounding 111.8 QB rating while at home, and although the rushing yds/game were fairly even, the Packers scored five more TDs on the ground at Lambeau than anywhere else.  And let us not forget about the Pack’s relentless defense, as they recorded 19 tackles for a loss (13 in away games), 17 interceptions (seven in away games) and four defensive TDs (none in away games) while at home.  Not too shabby, to say the least.

Now take these stats in mind, and add on the fact that the Saints will have young, anxious talent ready to get started with the 2011 season.  Rookie RB Mark Ingram will be on the field for the first time in a regular season contest, and he gets to stare into the eyes of Clay Matthews as he comes around the line for a potential sack.  Also, first-year DE Cameron Jordan makes his regular season premier for the Black and Gold, and new additions Darren Sproles and Olin Kreutz will be ready to run out of the tunnel as members of the Saints for the first time.  As a team with a steady mix of both veterans and youngsters, the level of intensity inside the visiting locker room prior to the game should be one of both quiet enthusiasm and sheer anticipation.  If they keep their heads on straight and play smart, then this could be a fun trip up North.

2.  If the preseason has shown us one thing, it has made apparent the gaping hole that is the Saints’ run defense.  The Packers, known for being a passing squad, cannot find a way to establish a run game.  If they do, then the game could get ugly.

Were there many things uglier than the Saints’ run defense this preseason?  Whenever a D makes Michael Bush look like Chris Johnson, then you know that there may be a problem.  In game one of the 2011 preseason, the Saints allowed the San Francisco 49ers to rush for 136 yards and average 4.7 yds/carry.  Game two was a borderline catastrophe, as the defense allowed 208 yards on the ground, and the Houston Texans averaged 6.1 yds/carry.  Even game three had its issues, as the Oakland Raiders racked up 5.3 yds/carry.  With the addition of Shaun Rodgers and Aubrayo Franklin in the offseason, many fans hoped that the run defense would improve.  So far, not so good. 

On the flip side, the Packers’ run production in 2010 was less-than-stellar, to say the least.  The team’s leading rusher, Brandon Jackson, averaged a mere 3.7 yds/carry, totaling 703 yards on the season.  The emergence of James Starks in the postseason, though, allowed the Packers to find some form of stability on the ground, and the rest is history.  With Ryan Grant returning from injury in 2011, they hope to find that stability once more.  The projections show that Grant could have a decent season, and if that begins on Thursday night, then the Saints could be in for some trouble.  A solid ground game opens up the play-action pass, and with wide receivers Greg Jennings, Jordy Nelson, and James Jones running deep routes (I like to think of Donald Driver as the old man of the group.  I’ll leave those deep routes for the younger guys.), the Saints can’t have their defensive backs/linebackers falling for any fake handoffs.  One misstep and it’s a TD for the Pack.  So LB Jonathan Vilma better be ready, because a balanced Packers’ offense is just about as scary as it gets.

3.  Clay Matthews has established himself as one of the better young linebackers in the league, and he’s notorious for getting into the backfield in a hurry.  Keep an eye on him.

If you don’t know who Clay Matthews is by now, then I have to ask: where have you been?  The man has made his presence felt over the past few years, and his performance in the 2010 playoffs was truly remarkable.  He racked up 3.5 sacks, 14 solo tackles, forced a fumble, and defended a pass, all over the course of four games.  The worst part?  He was just as scary in the regular season.  Last year, he posted 13.5 sacks, had 54 solo tackles, forced 2 fumbles, recorded a 62-yard pick six, and had four passes defended.  He’s pretty good.

Clay Matthews

In order to truly tame the Green Bay defense, one thing must be done:  Clay Matthews has to be kept in check.  Whether it’s the rookie Ingram, tight end Jimmy Graham, or RBs Pierre Thomas and Darren Sproles, one thing is for certain; someone better pick Matthews up if he comes on a blitz from the outside.  If Drew Brees can stay upright and is given time to throw, then he shouldn’t have much trouble finding an open receiver.  The Packers thrive with pressure, which forces QBs to make quick decisions, and ultimately more mistakes.  So key number three:  Watch Clay Matthews closely, for Brees’ sake.

4.  While we’re on the topic of a solid pass rush, the Saints must find a way to get to QB Aaron Rodgers.  If given time to throw, he is able to carve any defense.

There is one general rule that all defenses know in the NFL:  If you can get to the quarterback, then you’re bound to find success.  The same can be said when facing off against the Packers’ electrifying offense.  The Packers currently possess one of the Top-Five best passers in the game in Rodgers, who threw for 3,922 yards, 28 TDs, and had a 101.2 QB rating in 2010.  These statistics are all fine and dandy until you see the other side of the story. 

Whenever Rodgers faced an opposing blitz, things got a little scarier for Packers’ fans around the country.  Against the blitz, Rodgers completed 106 of 166 pass attempts (63.9%) for 1,282 yards, and of his 11 INTs on the season, five were thrown when pressured.  The numbers aren’t too ugly; however, when compared to his stats when not against the blitz (He recorded 2,400 yards and had an 18-8 TD-INT ration against a four-man rush.), one can see a clear difference.  With youngster Cameron Jordan and veteran Turk McBride added at the two DE spots and an aggressive defensive play caller in coordinator Greg Williams, one can hope that Rodgers finds some Black and Gold company in the backfield come Thursday night.

5.  As I highlighted in my previous article, the Saints find the most success when they have a productive ground game.  The same idea can be translated to Thursday night.  Establish a ground game, and things will be easier for Brees to handle.

There are plenty of things that Saints fans are looking forward to in the first contest of the season.  One of the most highly anticipated, though, is four full quarters of the “Three-Headed Monster” that exists in the Saints’ backfield.  Between Ingram, Thomas, and Sproles, the Saints should have some fun trying to establish a run game.  Last season, the Packers had their share of troubles while attempting to stop the run, giving up 1838 yards on 395 attempts (4.7 yds/carry) and surrendering six TDs.  All in all, they allowed 114.9 rushing yds/game. 

If the Saints’ three backs can take advantage of this, then expect to see the effects spread throughout the offense.  Imagine this situation:  Let’s say the Saints’ jump to an early lead via the run (On the first drive, the offense mixes in a nice balance of pass and rush, and they are able to successfully drive down the field for a score.).  How does this affect the Packers’ D?  Simple.  All of a sudden, Matthews has to watch his blitz attempts.  Safeties Nick Collins and Morgan Burnett have to keep a watchful eye on the backfield, causing the occasional lapse in coverage.  A solid run game would even force the likes of Charles Woodson to stay on his toes.  In the end, passing lanes open up for the tight ends and slot receivers, and we all know what Drew Brees can do with an open receiver.  With WRs Lance Moore, Devery Henderson, and Marques Colston lining up for the Saints, one mistake in coverage could be a fatal one.  In conclusion, if the Black and Gold can establish a run game, then the effects on the rest of the offense will be immense.

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