It’s been more than a decade since the two most recent Super Bowl champions met in a season-opener.
That makes Packers-Saints on Thursday night as marquee a matchup as it gets. The NFL’s “Back To Football” extravaganza has created far more hype than the Rams-Broncos opener got 11 years ago on a Monday night.
The intriguing question, then, is how different are these squads from those that won their respective championships?
Two years removed from their title, the Saints understandably have more new faces in prominent places.
Former Bears center Olin Kreutz, whom the Packers have faced plenty over the years, now anchors the Saints up front. Tight end Jimmy Graham capped his 2010 rookie season with four touchdown catches in the last three games. Rookie first-round pick Cameron Jordan, plus free agents Shaun Rogers and Aubrayo Franklin will all play key roles on the defensive line, while Malcolm Jenkins replaced veteran and former Packer Darren Sharper at safety.
Perhaps the most notable change, though, is in the offensive backfield, where the Saints now have rookie Mark Ingram and veteran Darren Sproles to go with holdover Pierre Thomas for their rushing attack.
“They have a stable of good running backs,” defensive end Ryan Pickett said. “Pierre Thomas, … you just go down the line. They’re great backs, so I would expect them to try to run the ball.”
The offensive backfield is where the Packers will look different from their title-winning team, too. For the first time, both Ryan Grant and James Starks will play in the same game, with rookie Alex Green also in the mix. How the workload will be shared, or whether the Packers have any packages with Grant and Starks on the field together, remains to be seen.
Grant joins two other starters returning from season-ending injuries a year ago in safety Morgan Burnett and tight end Jermichael Finley, who is probable on the injury report.
Finley’s return, plus the addition of second-round draft pick Randall Cobb to the receiving corps, gives the Packers an even deeper crop of pass-catchers than they had a year ago with Greg Jennings, Donald Driver, Jordy Nelson and James Jones.
Finley and Jennings are projected as the go-to guys, but who knows? Even quarterback Aaron Rodgers isn’t sure how it will play out.
“It will be interesting to see how defenses play us,” Rodgers said. “If they try to double (Finley) or double Greg, or play some sort of special coverage to try to take one of those two guys away … if so, then Jordy and James and Donald and Randall need to win their one-on-one battles.”
How quickly Cobb establishes his place in the receivers’ pecking order will be watched closely, but he’s almost certain to have an impact immediately in the return game.
With Cobb returning punts, and possibly kickoffs along with Green, the 2011 Packers will look most different than the 2010 Packers in those spots.
“I feel comfortable with it,” Cobb said of the return game, at which he looks like a natural. “I never feel any pressure back there.”
In the end, pressure is what this game could come down to – how much the Saints put on Rodgers, and how much the Packers get on Drew Brees.
Three seasons ago in New Orleans, the Packers got virtually none on Brees and he lit up Green Bay for 51 points, which McCarthy referred to this week as simply “a bad day for the Packers.” While that game did not seal the decision to switch defensive schemes heading into ’09 – “No staff changes were made that day,” McCarthy said – the 51 points were 14 more than a McCarthy Packers team had given up to that point, and the three-touchdown defeat began a five-game losing streak that sunk the ’08 season.
“We kind of took it on the chin,” cornerback Charles Woodson said.
“A lot is different now,” added cornerback Tramon Williams, able to laugh a bit at the memory. “We’ll just leave it at that.”
Both teams are relatively healthy for the opener. In addition to Finley, tackle Chad Clifton (knee) and rookie tight end Ryan Taylor (hip) are probable for the Packers. Defensive end Mike Neal (knee) is questionable, while linebackers Frank Zombo (shoulder) and Vic So’oto (back) and cornerback Davon House (ankle) are all out. For the Saints, receiver Adrian Arrington (knee) and defensive tackle Tom Johnson (calf) are questionable, while kicker Garrett Hartley (right hip) and receiver Lance Moore (groin), who had 115 yards and two TDs against Green Bay in ’08, are out. Former Carolina Panther John Kasay will kick for Hartley.
McCarthy noted this week that season-openers, in his experience, typically feature 20 to 30 percent “unscouted” looks, or alignments and packages that neither team has put on film for anyone to see.
With defensive coordinators Gregg Williams and Dom Capers – both hired to their current posts in ’09 – getting their first crack at Rodgers and Brees, respectively, the ability to adjust and execute on the fly will be at a premium.
“We’ll see what he has,” linebacker Clay Matthews said of Capers. “Already we’re a few pages deep (in the playbook) as far as what we have in store. It will be fun to see what he brings out, but at the same time he’s very methodical. There’s a lot of ‘strategery’ behind what he does.”
Runner-up for NFL defensive player of the year last season, Matthews was still playing at USC the last time the Packers and Saints met. Considering two of the Packers’ six losses a year ago came when Matthews missed time due to a hamstring injury, keeping him healthy and productive – and pressuring QBs like Brees – will be one of the keys to the Packers making another run.
“We’re led by a great group of guys,” Matthews said, mentioning specifically Rodgers and Woodson, “and we have a bunch of young talent that can make plays out there. We have all the right coaches, too.
“We have everything we need. Now it’s about putting it all together.” Additional coverage - Sept. 7