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The New Orleans Saints’ season opener with the Green Bay Packers is just days away, and while there’s a long road to Los Angeles for Super Bowl LVI this Week 1 matchup will set the tone for both teams. So who has an advantage?
It’s tough to narrow the list of variables down to a handful of critical factors, but this week John Sigler from Saints Wire teamed up with Zach Kruse from Packers Wire to identify five points of emphasis that could swing the game one way or another. Here’s what we discussed:
New Orleans Saints quarterback Jameis Winston (2) warms up before an NFL preseason football game against the Jac ksonville Jaguars in New Orleans, Monday, Aug. 23, 2021. (AP Photo/Derick Hingle)
Saints Wire: Jameis Winston has looked decisive and composed in the pocket on the few looks we’ve gotten this summer, which is a far cry from his often-flustered Buccaneers tenure. Maybe he’s turned a corner under Sean Payton’s tutelage and Drew Brees’ mentorship. But I need to see him in a real game under live fire from a talented defense – and the Packers fit that bill. I expect them to challenge Winston and his unproven (to put it nicely) set of weapons, and I think the Packers have a clear edge here given Aaron Rodgers’ continued success and the continuity he’s enjoyed in the Green Bay receiving crops. Packers Wire: Three-time NFL MVP Aaron Rodgers is coming off one of his best-ever seasons, and he’s also entering his third year in Matt LaFleur’s scheme. He was accurate and decisive in 2020; he’s even more comfortable entering 2021. If a dropoff is coming, training camp in Green Bay didn’t provide any evidence for it. Rodgers is locked in and ready to put up crazy numbers again. A talented supporting cast and a clever playcaller make his job easier. While Jameis Winston has a talented arm and could be revitalized with Sean Payton, he can’t compare to Rodgers. Advantage: Packers
Line of scrimmage
New Orleans Saints defensive end Marcus Davenport (92) sets up for a play during the first half of an NFL football game against the Jacksonville Jaguars Sunday, Oct. 13, 2019, in Jacksonville, Fla. (AP Photo/Phelan M. Ebenhack)
Saints Wire: This is an area where I like the Saints much better. On offense, they’ve got the NFL’s best set of bookend tackles in Terron Armstead and Ryan Ramczyk, with three talented starter all returning along the interior. And on defense, their depth at defensive end should shine against backup left tackle Elgton Jenkins, as much as I respect him (Hail State!). Right end Marcus Davenport has been a star at Saints training camp and in their two preseason games and Jenkins will be a great measuring-stick for his progress in a critical year. I’m less confident of the Saints rotation at defensive tackle, but they might have a favorable matchup with two rookie starters in Green Bay. Give me the Saints here, especially if Za’Darius Smith isn’t at full strength on Sunday. Packers Wire: The Packers employed an elite offensive line in 2020, but the group will be without All-Pros David Bakhtiari (PUP list) and Corey Linsley (free agency) to open 2021, leaving two rookies (Josh Myers, center; Royce Newman, right guard) to start in Week 1. This group will be a question mark until Bakhtiari returns. The Packers are talented along the defensive front, with Za’Darius Smith, Preston Smith, Kenny Clark and Rashan Gary leading the way, but Za’Darius is dealing with a back injury and Preston is somewhat of an unknown after a disappointing 2020 season. The Saints have a truly elite offensive line and a healthy defensive line featuring Cam Jordan and Marcus Davenport.
Green Bay Packers outside linebacker Za'Darius Smith (55) recovers a fumble in the second half of an NFL football game against the New Orleans Saints in New Orleans, Sunday, Sept. 27, 2020. (AP Photo/Brett Duke)
Saints Wire: I’d like to think the Saints have an edge here given Winston’s projected improvement, but I’ll believe it when I see it. They aren’t helped by all the uncertainty at cornerback, where third-round rookie Paulson Adebo is in for a baptism by fire and Pro Bowl starter Marshon Lattimore could be questionable with a sudden knee injury. Meanwhile, the Packers run a largely mistake-free offense and have some playmakers on defense. If anyone is going to come away with a Winston interception, it may be breakout safety Darnell Savage. Green Bay wins here. Packers Wire: The Packers had an NFL-low 11 giveaways in 2020. Throughout his career, Aaron Rodgers has been one of the best ever at avoiding interceptions. The same can’t be said for Jameis Winston, who threw 30 picks in his last full season as a starter. The Packers managed only 18 takeaways last year, but the defense has players – such as Jaire Alexander Darnell Savage and Adrian Amos – who can go get the football. Za’Darius Smith’s strip of Taysom Hill was a crucial moment in the matchup between these two teams last season.
Saints Wire: The Saints defense was surprisingly bad in the red zone last year given how well they played in the open field, and I don’t see any reason to believe they’ve suddenly solved that problem. Especially against the Packers’ top-ranked red zone offense. But we could see better battles on the other side of the ball, where New Orleans’ fifth-ranked red zone offense collides with Green Bay’s eighth-ranked red zone defense. Both squads are also evenly matched on third and fourth downs based off last year’s production. Obviously Winston conducting the offense throws a wrench in everything, but it may not be a bad thing; his Buccaneers offense ranked just behind the Saints in 2019 on third down conversions, and actually placed fourth-best in the league in red zone scoring. I’ll call this a toss up, but leaning towards the Packers given their consistency. Packers Wire: The Packers were arguably the best situational football team in the NFL last season. The offense scored touchdowns on 80 percent of red zone trips and ranked second in third-down conversion percentage, while the defense finished in the top 10 in the red zone (eighth) and third down (10th). Situational performance can have high variance year to year, but the Packers have the difference-makers on offense and the pass-rush on defense to be great situationally again in 2021. The Saints were very good in three of the four situational categories last season but struggled with red zone defense.
Green Bay Packers wide receiver Allen Lazard (13) pulls in a 48 yard pass in front of New Orleans Saints cornerback Marshon Lattimore (23) in the first half of an NFL football game in New Orleans, Sunday, Sept. 27, 2020. (AP Photo/Brett Duke)
Saints Wire: So we won’t know the score until the Saints and Packers release their final injury reports, but things seem to be deteriorating in New Orleans. After listing only starting cornerback Ken Crawley on the first report (as a non-participant with a knee injury), he was joined by No. 2 wide receiver Tre’Quan Smith (DNP with a continued hamstring issue, which has dogged him all summer) and No. 1 corner Marshon Lattimore, who was limited by an unexpected knee issue. Lattimore’s status is the top concern for the Saints. Impressive rookie Paulson Adebo can fill in for Crawley, but if Lattimore can’t play or isn’t at his best against Davante Adams, the Saints will have to turn to recently-signed backup Desmond Trufant. That’s a mismatch. The only notable injury issue for Green Bay is star pass rusher Za’Darius Smith. He would be missed, but the Packers have enough juice up front to survive without him for a week. I think the Packers are ahead here. Packers Wire: Will the Packers have All-Pro edge rusher Za’Darius Smith available? He’s been practicing in a limited capacity this week, but even if he plays Sunday, he’ll likely be restricted. All-Pro left tackle David Bakhtiari is on the PUP list. The Packers are otherwise healthy. Backup safety Vernon Scott likely won’t play with a hamstring injury. The Saints won’t have All-Pro receiver Michael Thomas (PUP list), and starting cornerbacks Ken Crawley and Marshon Lattimore are both on the injury report. So is receiver Tre’Quan Smith. The injury situation is certainly trending the Packers’ way to end the week.
Verdict: Advantage Packers
Sep 27, 2020; New Orleans, Louisiana, USA; New Orleans Saints running back Alvin Kamara (41) is tackled by Green Bay Packers cornerback Jaire Alexander (23) and safety Will Redmond (25) during the second quarter at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. Mandatory Credit: Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports
This hurt, guys. I think the Saints will give Green Bay a ton of trouble up front on both sides of the ball, and that's going to result in a big game for Alvin Kamara -- and maybe Jameis Winston, if he's kept clean long enough to find vulnerabilities in the Green Bay secondary. They'll also force Aaron Rodgers to make a lot of throws under pressure and on the move. If Marshon Lattimore suits up, maybe their defense can make enough stops to keep the Packers on their heels. But you'll notice how many "ifs" I just had to throw out there. The Saints and Packers are simply in different places right now and New Orleans is rightfully seen as an underdog.