The Packers travel to Jacksonville to take on the Saints (which is the first time we’ve ever been able to say that) and kick off the 2021 season!
The last time they played was week 3 of last season when the Packers took advantage of an empty Superdome to win a close one 37-30. With Davante Adams injured, Allen Lazard had his best game as a pro, catching 6 balls for 146 yards and a TD (plus drawing pass interference on 3rd and 15 to keep the Packers alive on a 4th quarter touchdown drive).
Prior to that, the Saints blew the Packers out in 2017 and 2014, but these Saints are different than the Saints of the last decade and a half: they won’t have Drew Brees.
That’s not the only player they lost since their last meeting, either. After years of pushing off cap hits to try to win another Super Bowl with Brees, the Saints had a brutal offseason where they were forced to cut 4 starters and trade another just to get under the cap. Plus, they weren’t able to re-sign their most important free agents. That will make a huge difference for the Saints this year, starting with this game.
WHEN THE SAINTS HAVE THE BALL
Without Drew Brees, the Saints offense will look much different. Even with his arm weakening, his quick reads and accurate short passes kept the Saints offense moving. The Saints also had to cut Emmanuel Sanders and Jared Cook – their two most productive receivers from last season – to get under the cap.
New Orleans has to completely rebuild their passing attack.
Jameis Winston takes over at quarterback and brings a stronger arm than Drew Brees had at the end of his run. The Saints offense may throw deep more often as a result. In the preseason, Winston established a rapport with second-year receiver Marquez Callaway, who looks to be the number 1 target with Michael Thomas out. The 6’2, 205 Callaway doesn’t eye-popping clocked speed, but he’s showing a knack for getting open deep and reminds some people (like me) of James Jones when it comes to contested catches. Jaire Alexander, giving up 4 inches, could miss some contested catches against Callaway. The Packers may opt to put King on Callaway for the size matchup, but Callaway could come up with some big plays if the heat wears King out.
In addition to going deep more, Winston will probably also turn the ball over more. He has a hard-earned reputation as a turnover machine, with 88 interceptions to go with 76 starts, including a league-most 30 picks in 2019, when he was a starter in Tampa Bay.
Sean Payton runs a more quarterback-friendly offense than Winston had in Tampa Bay, though, and he won’t need to be the focal point of the offense. That will be Alvin Kamara, who is one of the best dual threats in the game and will be the first test of Joe Barry’s new defensive scheme (read more about what Joe Barry has to work with here). In the 2 times he played against the Packers, he’s averaged nearly 8 yards per rushing attempt and 90 receiving yards per game. New Orleans will get him the ball and the Packers will have to find a way to stop him. He will break tackles and if he gets rolling on a hot day, things could go south in a hurry.
With Za’Darius Smith banged up, Preston Smith and Rashan Gary should be able to show their value with edge containment (which will also come in handy to limit Winston’s running ability), something they both excel at. Kenny Clark will anchor the middle and guys like TJ Slaton, Jack Hefflin, and Dean Lowry will play a role in clogging up the lanes as well. De’Vondre Campbell and Krys Barnes should have their hands full trying to gang tackle Kamara and I’d expect to see Adrian Amos playing close to the line to help.
The Packers biggest obstacle on defense may be the conditions. Yes, both teams have to play in the same heat and humidity, but the Packers will be wearing dark green with a sideline in the sun while the Saints chill out in the shade wearing white. This will matter in the 4th when the big guys get winded. The Packers should counter this by keeping their defensive line in a steady rotation.
WHEN THE PACKERS HAVE THE BALL
Due to years of aggressive cap management, the Saints had to purge their roster in the offseason. They traded away starting defensive tackle Malcolm Brown and couldn’t afford to retain Sheldon Rankins. That leaves Malcolm Roach and Christian Ringo (who hasn’t even taken a snap since 2018) both making their first career starts as the defensive tackle tandem (with Montravius Adams is the primary backup). New Orleans has some talented ends in Marcus Davenport and Cameron Jordan to go with good linebackers in Demario Davis and Kwon Alexander, but their interior line is weak.
This could be a confidence-booster and tone-setting game for an unfamiliar offensive line (read more about the Packers unfamiliar offensive line here). With swingman Lucas Patrick and a couple rookies in Josh Myers and Royce Newman teaming up on the interior line, there are bound to be some growing pains. Facing a weak front in their first outing could help them start to gel. I’d love to see the Packers ram AJ Dillon down the middle and let Aaron Jones slash through the inside cutback lanes all day.
Aaron Rodgers may have something to say about that, though.
The Saints, as a part of that roster purge, also had to cut starting cornerback Janoris Jenkins to get under the cap this year. His replacement, Ken Crawley, is expected to miss the game after getting hurt in the preseason. The Saints also traded for Bradley Roby, but he is suspended this week.
And we all know how Aaron Rodgers loves to pick on backup defensive backs.
The Saints have Marshon Lattimore, a perennial Pro Bowl cornerback, but he’s only one man (and was a late add to the injury report). Meanwhile, the Packers passing game is bursting with talent. Davante Adams is playing to become the highest-paid receiver of all time. MVS has has had a chip on his shoulder all offseason and is also in a contract year, trying to capitalize after leading the NFL in yards per catch last year . Rodgers will be sure to get Cobb the ball and prove it was a great pickup. Rob Tonyan, who led the NFL in touchdowns by a tight end last year, has looked like an All Pro in camp and is also playing in a contract year. Allen Lazard is no slouch (and torched the Saints last time he played them) and Amari Rodgers brings a new dimension to the offense.
New Orleans’s best bet to slow the Packers’s passing game would be to bring pressure. That might not be easy, since they couldn’t afford to retain Trey Hendrickson in the offseason. Last year, Hendrickson led the team in sacks, quarterback hits, and tackles for a loss.
However, the Saints do have some pass rushers that can cause problems in All Pro defensive end Cameron Jordan and the physically talented Marcus Davenport. With Elgton Jenkins and Billy Turner both moving from their preferred guard positions to play tackle (and working with unfamiliar partners at guard), this tandem might bring enough pressure to keep the Packers in a short passing game.
Given that the Saints may have their linebackers cheating up to the line to compensate for their weakness at defensive tackle. That could open up crossing routes off of play action.
The Packers look primed to move up and down the field running or passing.
It’ll be interesting to see what the run-pass balance looks like, and how much Rodgers audibles out of run calls.
I’m excited to see how Corey Bojorquez does in his first outing as the punter. I’m less excited to see how he does as the holder. Without a lot of time to work with kicker Mason Crosby and long-snapper Hunter Bradley, things could get rough, especially if the humidity turns to rain.
At the time of this writing, the Saints don’t even have a kicker listed on their depth chart.
Ty Montgomery is currently WR6 for the Saints. I wonder if Aaron Rodgers will give him a big hug after the game…
The Saints had a terrible offseason and are starting a rebuild. There is premier talent on this team in guys like Alvin Kamara and Marshon Lattimore, but not enough. The Packers should be able to pass at will and run with success. On defense, they should be able to get a turnover or two, even though Alvin Kamara will be tough to contain.
I’m looking for the Packers to jump out to an early lead as an offense full of guys with things to prove pounces on a decimated defense. Then the Saints get some garbage points when the Packers defense gets winded, but not enough to get worried.
Final prediction: Packers 34, Saints 23
Bruce Irons has played, coached, and studied football for decades. Author of books such as A Fan’s Guide To Understanding The NFL Draft, A Fan’s Guide To Understanding The NFL Salary Cap, and A Fan’s Guide To NFL Free Agency Hits And Misses, Bruce contributes to CheeseHeadTV and PackersForTheWin.com.
Follow Bruce Irons on Twitter at @BruceIronsNFL.