Aaron Rodgers handed worst loss of NFL career as Saints stun Packers in rout

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JACKSONVILLE, Fla. - In the Florida heat, the Green Bay Packers melted down on both sides of the ball Sunday like candle wax, losing their displaced opener against the New Orleans Saints, 38-3.

The Packers were humbled Sunday at TIAA Bank Field in Jacksonville, the home stadium of the Jacksonville Jaguars, after a peaceable training camp that followed a tumultuous offseason.

They entered with legitimate Super Bowl aspirations following consecutive 13- 3 seasons that ended in the NFC championship game. The Packers are still capable of having a season like that – it was just one game – but will need to go back to the drawing board after the worst opening loss since a 40-0 defeat against the Detroit Lions to open the 1970 season.

Aaron Rodgers #12 of the Green Bay Packers looks to pass against Cameron Jordan #94 of the New Orleans Saints during the first half at TIAA Bank Field on September 12, 2021 in Jacksonville, Florida.
Aaron Rodgers #12 of the Green Bay Packers looks to pass against Cameron Jordan #94 of the New Orleans Saints during the first half at TIAA Bank Field on September 12, 2021 in Jacksonville, Florida.

The loss marked the worst margin of defeat in Aaron Rodgers' NFL career. Rodgers threw for just 133 yards and two interceptions on 15-of-28 passing before Jordan Love, the team's 2020 first-round pick, took over late in the blowout.

Saints quarterback Jameis Winston, meanwhile, threw five touchdowns despite tallying just 148 yards on 14-of-20 passing.

Here are four observations from Sunday:

Aaron Rodgers’ regrettable return

Rodgers took the first snap under center Sunday, just like everyone expected all offseason. Or maybe not. Either way, the Packers had their reigning MVP quarterback behind center. Or ... maybe not.

Behind a remade offensive line that featured Elgton Jenkins at left tackle, replacing injured David Bakhtiari, and a pair of rookies in center Josh Myers and right guard Royce Newman, Rodgers spent much of the day running to evade the rush. To be clear, it wasn’t entirely on the offensive line. Rodgers often bought extra time because he had nobody open to throw to downfield. Meanwhile, the Packers' defense made Winston look like Drew Brees. It’s uncommon to see the Packers so outmatched at quarterback.

Run defense gashed

The quarterback disparity paled to what happened on the ground. The Saints were so confident in running on the Packers' defense in coordinator Joe Barry’s debut, Sean Payton called for a run on second-and-14 in the first half. It got one yard. On third-and-13, Payton called for another run. The Saints eventually converted a fourth-and-7 screen pass one play later, but you get the idea. The Saints finished with 163 yards on 35 carries, compared to 31 yards on 11 carries for the Packers. At one point late in the first half, the Saints had 141 yards on 24 carries — while the Packers had 12 yards on four carries. A complete mismatch in the trenches.

Lack of preseason snaps matter

It hard to think the Packers’ lack of preseason snaps didn’t have a big factor in an ugly first half. The Packers sat out at least 30 players in each of their three preseason games — the top of their roster, essentially. Matt LaFleur was adamant he did not worry about the lack of preseason snaps, and indeed the Packers had a hot start last season without a preseason. But no team last year played in a preseason that was canceled because of COVID-19.

On Sunday, they played a Saints team that had put its starters on the field this preseason, and it seemed to make a big difference. Before the final drive of the first half, the Saints had run 38 plays to the Packers’ 12. They had averaged 5.5 yards per play to the Packers’ 1.8. It was utter domination. If the Packers had learned this preseason they would look like a team showing up for a preseason game in their opener, but they would enter the season completely healthy, LaFleur likely would have taken that tradeoff. It’s a long season. On Sunday, the discrepancy seemed to make a big difference.

Za’Darius Smith plays

Despite having only four practices since the start of camp, Za’Darius Smith was active for the opener. Smith was listed questionable Friday because of a back injury that sidelined him for almost the entirety of camp. He had just one practice midway through camp and missed the final two weeks. Smith returned to practice this week, participating three times including Thursday’s padded session, but he was held out Friday.

The Packers were abundantly careful with key starters dealing with injuries throughout 2020, keeping Billy Turner (knee), Davante Adams (hamstring) and Aaron Jones (calf) out of games for precautionary reasons. The decision to have Smith active against the Saints was a reversal of that approach. Smith was significantly limited. Preston Smith and Rashan Gary got the start, and Jonathan Garvin and Chauncey Rivers were first to rotate off the sideline early, leaving about 20 snaps mostly in clear pass-rushing situations for Za’Darius Smith.

This article originally appeared on Packers News: Aaron Rodgers handed worst loss of career as Saints rout Packers