One Day to Kickoff: One Big Packers vs. Saints Preview
GREEN BAY, Wis. – Sunday night’s showdown between the Green Bay Packers and New Orleans Saints is more than just a potential NFC Championship Game preview. And it’s more than the marquee quarterbacking matchup of Aaron Rodgers vs. Drew Brees.
Indeed, this is a clash of dynasties that never quite got off the ground.
With Rodgers as the quarterback since 2008, the Packers have won one Super Bowl. That was in 2010. They’ve reached three conference championship games since then but never gotten back to the Super Bowl. Brees and coach Sean Payton got hitched in 2006. Their one and only Super Bowl win was back in 2009. They’ve only reached one other conference championship game.
Since 2008, the Saints (122-72) and Packers (121-71-2) lead the NFC in wins but could only watch as Bill Belichick and Tom Brady collected Lombardi Trophies like others collect stamps. The franchises will be haunted forever by their playoff failures. For Green Bay, it was falling apart after going 15-1 in 2011 and the infamous meltdown at Seattle with a trip to the Super Bowl all but wrapped up in 2014. For New Orleans, it was gut-wrenching losses to Minnesota in 2017 (Minneapolis Miracle), the Rams in 2018 (blown pass interference in the NFC Championship Game) and Minnesota again in 2019 (at home in overtime).
With that, it’s fascinating comparing how these teams were built for 2020 after going 13-3 in 2019. After getting blown off the field by San Francisco in last year’s NFC Championship Game, general manager Brian Gutekunst essentially did nothing to address the team’s immediate shortcomings. With $26.1 million of cap space at the start of the league-year, the team got worse in free agency with the loss of talented but injury-plagued right tackle Bryan Bulaga. Then, in a forward-thinking draft, he selected the quarterback of the future (Jordan Love) in the first round, the running back of the future (AJ Dillon in the second round) and an undersized tight end (Josiah Deguara) in the third round.
The Saints, by contrast, stepped on the gas for their veteran quarterback. While Green Bay dating back to Ted Thompson’s long and successful tenure as general manager generally has taken a pay-as-you-go approach to the salary cap, the Saints under general manager Mickey Loomis have continually navigated around the salary cap by using a high-interest credit card. While Gutekunst looked at his salary cap and made only a couple minor moves, the Saints – despite entering the league-year with only $7.5 million of cap space – reworked enough contracts to sign receiver Emmanuel Sanders, who had been courted by the Packers, and safety Malcolm Jenkins in free agency and extend running back Alvin Kamara.
It’s an approach that’s obviously appreciated by Payton. After all, coaches are always in win-now mode.
“Yeah, hopefully each year we have that” aggressiveness, he said during a conference call on Wednesday. “Obviously, there’s only X amount of dollars to spend each season but I think we’ve drafted well. One of the challenges when you draft real well is, obviously, these players gradually come up for contracts. We’re looking to find second-contract type players when we’re drafting, guys that you want to be not just the face of the program but the identity of what your program is. Hopefully, each year we’re giving our fans the best product possible and our team the best chance to win. It’s invigorating as a coach. I think Mickey, the front office, all of us collectively each year look at ways to improve the team. Sometimes, that involves difficult decisions but, nonetheless, it’s exciting.”
There’s always pressure to win, but the pressure is especially heightened in New Orleans. Brees is 41 and is approaching the 18th hole of his brilliant career. Meanwhile, the COVID-19 pandemic means the salary cap is going to drop by perhaps $20 million for next year. Thus, OverTheCap.com projects the Saints will be $79.1 million over the 2021 cap. That’s not a misplaced decimal point.
Payton isn’t worried about 2021. He’s got a high-quality team that’s built to win right now.
“I think we focused year to year,” Payton said. “Look, I feel like there’s pressure every season to do well. You know, one of the great motivating factors is fear of failure. You want to put a good product on the field. As coaches, you wean to clean up the mistakes you made the past week. There’s certainly a standard of how we want to play here. But, honestly, as a coach, I don’t think we ever find ourselves looking, ‘Well, next year is going to be like, and the following year is going to be like.’ In other words, those seem like eternities from now. We’re focused on this week. I know it’s a cliché but really you live by that. You live by the itinerary, your preparation, and the other things will take care of themselves when the season finishes up. But it’s important that we’re playing meaningful games toward the end of the year. We’ve been able to do that quite a bit here and hopefully we can continue that this season.”
But how about next season? Can the Saints squeeze out another championship before Brees rides off to the sunset and the debt collector comes to destroy a potent roster? Can the Packers – who have their own cap issues to navigate with Aaron Jones and David Bakhtiari among the team’s key free agents – win today with Rodgers and tomorrow with Love, which is what Gutekunst is attempting to pull off?
Only time will tell which approach is correct.
Strength on Strength
Dating to 1932, the Packers have had one – and only one – NFL rushing champion. That would be Hall of Famer Jim Taylor, who led the league during his MVP season of 1962.
Entering Week 3, Aaron Jones has an NFL-high 234 rushing yards. That’s 34 more yards than the reigning rushing king, Derrick Henry of Tennessee.
Jones won’t have it easy on Sunday, though. The Saints are fourth in the league with 3.31 yards allowed per carry. They haven’t allowed a 100-yard rusher in 44 consecutive games. No other team has a streak longer than a dozen games.
“You can tell they’re fundamentally sound, they’re gap sound,” coach Matt LaFleur said. “Their scheme is really challenging. They’re going to throw a lot of different looks at you, a lot of different personnel groupings, and they are a game-plan team. They’re going to come out, have a specific plan for us. We’ve got to be able to adjust and adapt. But I think it’s a combination of the scheme and the players. They’ve got great players, and the one thing that certainly stands out on tape is these guys play fast and they are physical. They are flying around.”
What, exactly, is a “game-plan” team? For the Packers under defensive coordinator Mike Pettine, he has some bedrock principles that he takes into game after game. There’s no need to reinvent the wheel if the wheel is working. Well, the Saints reinvent the wheel every week. That means what LaFleur and his staff saw when the Saints played the Buccaneers in Week 1 and the Raiders in Week 2 might not have resemble how the Saints will line up on Sunday.
“I think it’s always a challenge, especially early in the year. There’s not a lot of tape,” LaFleur said. “Dennis Allen’s been calling defenses for a long time, so you get an idea of some of the different things that they’ve done to maybe teams you’ve played them in the past. We’ve had guys that have gone against him. So, you get a rough guestimate in terms of what could be coming your way. Fortunately for us, really, on both sides of the ball, I think we do enough on both sides that our players have had a lot of training in seeing different looks.”
Brees is the most prolific quarterback in NFL history, ranking No. 1 all-time in completions, attempts, yards and touchdowns. He enters Sunday’s game with 550 touchdown passes and needs 122 yards to hit 78,000 for his career.
It’s not just the longevity of the 20-year pro, though. He’s No. 1 all-time with 281.2 passing yards per game and a 67.6 percent completion rate. That accuracy is the hallmark of his game. He set an NFL record in completion percentage in 2017 (72.0), beat it in 2018 (74.4) and almost matched it in 2019 (74.3).
Brees is off to a slow start – by his standards, anyway – in 2020, leading to questions about whether the 41-year-old’s career is approaching the finish line. He’s completed only 64.7 percent of his passes. Moreover, he is averaging just 4.87 yards per attempt. That’s not just the lowest in the league but the lowest by a wide margin. No other quarterback is averaging less than 6.0 yards per attempt.
“I feel good, borderline great,” Brees told reporters in New Orleans this week. “There are many statistics I do not pay one bit of attention to, and (yards per attempt) would be one. I am focused on putting us in positions to succeed, making great decisions, both in the run game and the pass game. ... I don’t care how we do it. I honestly don’t. I just want to win.”
In seven career games against the Packers, Brees’ passer rating is 110.4. That’s the highest for any opposing quarterback against Green Bay. Brees has topped 300 passing yards in each matchup vs. the Packers – that seven-game streak being the longest for any quarterback against any opponent in NFL history – and has averaged a staggering 363.7 yards per game.
Pettine, of course, wasn’t about to suggest Brees is washed up.
“You can see there were some people questioning his arm, and there are deeper concepts called and the coverage took it away,” Pettine said. “And there are times where you don’t want to give up the long ball and you recognize the routes and you’re on it. But then, obviously, you’re going to give up something underneath and, and he’s as good as there is at identifying what’s available. He’ll take what you give him and he knows very quickly during the play, if not before the play, what’s being given to him. So, he still is just playing at such an extremely high level. It’s not anything that’s in our heads as far as him taking a step back or on the down slide.”
Hello, Old Friend
Green Bay’s 2016 playoff game at Dallas was headed to overtime. After all, the Packers faced a third-and-20 with12 seconds to go. Over the last decade, the league-wide success rate on third-and-20 was 2.98 percent. Green Bay was 0-for-15. Presumably, it would fall short again, punt and then head out to midfield for the overtime coin toss.
Instead, in one of the great plays in Packers history, Rodgers rolled out to his left and connected with tight end Jared Cook for a remarkable 35-yard completion. Mason Crosby booted a 51-yard field goal to send Green Bay to the NFC Championship Game.
Playing under a one-year contract, Cook caught 30 passes for 377 yards and one touchdown in 2016. Cook wanted to return to Green Bay and there’s no doubt Rodgers wanted him back. Instead, when Cook’s now-former agent sought a bigger deal, Thompson called the bluff and signed Martellus Bennett. Cook wound up in Oakland and had the two biggest seasons of his career.
In free agency in 2019, Cook signed a two-year, $15.5 million contract with the Saints. After posting career highs with nine touchdowns and 16.4 yards per catch last season, he has seven catches for 93 yards and one score entering Sunday.
“He’s obviously a big target that has a vertical presence down the field and another guy that’s been playing at a high level for a really long time,” LaFleur said.
While Cook has thrived since his one memorable season in Green Bay, the Packers’ never-ending quest for a legit tight end continues. During the seven drafts from 2014 through 2020, the Packers selected four tight ends: Richard Rodgers in the third round in 2014, Kennard Backman in the sixth round in 2015, Jace Sternberger in the third round in 2019 and Josiah Deguara in the third round in 2020. Rodgers caught 58 passes and scored eight touchdowns in 2015 but never was a factor with a 9.7-yard career average. Backman failed to make the roster. Sternberger has been a major disappointment in his brief career. Deguara will miss his second consecutive game with an ankle injury. Bennett and Jimmy Graham, of course, were major free-agent whiffs in trying to find an answer at the position.
Maybe Sternberger or Deguara will pan out. Even if they do, they’ll never measure up to Cook, a rare deep threat at the position at 6-foot-5 and with 4.49 speed at the Scouting Combine in 2009. Last year, he caught 6-of-9 passes thrown 20-plus yards downfield. That 66.7 percent catch rate on deep passes was tied for No. 1 among all tight ends.
Another Familiar Face
The Legend of Taysom Hill is, in fact, a bit of a tall tale. For as much hype as Hill has received for being a quarterback/receiver/tight end/special-teams player, and for as much praise as Payton has received for using him in multiple ways, he has accounted for merely 782 yards as a passer, runner and receiver in his career. That includes 445 total yards last season – or 27.8 per game.
After four season-ending injuries in five years at BYU, Hill joined Green Bay as an undrafted free agent in 2017. He turned 27 during his rookie training camp, failed to make the roster and has made a name for himself with the Saints.
“The turnover in Green Bay has been high since I was there last,” Hill told reporters on Friday. “There are certainly several players that are still there that I consider friends. It's a fun game to be a part of. But, man, overall, I had a great experience in Green Bay, going from the number of injuries that I had, and then being undrafted. And the reality is, Green Bay created an opportunity for me to be seen. And I’ll forever be grateful to the Packers and their organization and they certainly have a soft spot in my heart, as well, because of the opportunity that they created for me.”
The Saints are 3-point favorites. With Green Bay coming in at 2-0 and the Saints coming off a Monday night loss, 88 percent of the bets and 84 percent of the money on the spread have come on the Packers at FanDuel.
“We think this is a great spot for the Saints,” FanDuel’s John Sheeran said. “The Packers have looked very good in the first two weeks but the defenses they have faced have likely flattered them. This line looks wrong to us as we think it should be more like New Orleans at -5.5. We’re happy to take all the money we can on Green Bay at +3. This is their acid test.”
Did You Know?
- Gutekunst’s first NFL experience came when he assisted the Saints’ coaching staff with the offensive line in 1995. Back then, the Saints held their training camp at Gutekunst’s alma mater, the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse.
- The coaches were small-college quarterbacks. At Eastern Illinois, Payton finished with 10,665 passing yards. At the time, that was the third-highest total in NCAA Division I-AA (now known as FCS) history. LaFleur ranks third in Saginaw State history with 7,699 passing yards. He led the team to a three straight Division II playoff appearances.
- Based on the NFL’s analysis of Week 1 rosters, the Saints have a league-high 14 players who are 30 or older and have the oldest roster in the league at 27.00 years old. Green Bay has the league’s sixth-youngest roster with an average age of 25.51.
Stats That Aren’t for Losers
- LaFleur is 15-3 in his brief coaching career, a .833 winning percentage. If he emerges with another victory on Sunday night, his 16-3 record would tie Elgie Tobin for the best ever by a coach with at least 19 games on his resume. Tobin coached the Akron Pros in 1920 and 1921 and won the 1920 NFL championship.
- The Saints are coming off a Monday night game, which should offer a small advantage to Green Bay. Over the last decade, teams are four games below .500 when they’re a day short on rest.
- The Saints and Packers lead the NFL with just one sack allowed.
- Green Bay made some history last week when it rallied from a 14-3 deficit to beat Detroit. The Packers became the fourth team in NFL history to defeat an opponent three consecutive times despite trailing by 10-plus points in each game, according to the Elias Sports Bureau via the Packers’ Dope Sheet.
- According to Zebra Technologies, Jones reached 20.66 mph on his 75-yard touchdown run against Detroit. That was the eighth-fastest speed among ball-carriers in Week 2. Jones was expected to rush for 5 yards on the play. His 70 yards over expectation trailed only Raheem Mostert’s 75 yards over expectation on an 80-yard touchdown vs. the Jets. After running into a stacked box at the highest percentage in Week 1, he didn’t run into any in Week 2.
The Last Word Goes To …
Taysom Hill, on the qualities of Rodgers and Brees: “I think overall, both of those quarterbacks, they win a lot of football games with their mind. And, obviously, Aaron, there's probably a little more off-timing throws, and Aaron runs the ball a little bit more than Drew does, which is probably what I would say would be the difference. But both quarterbacks win with their minds. I would say Drew, what makes him special and unique is his ability to know what the defense is doing, attacking their weakness. And, I certainly saw the same thing from Aaron. And he had a great command of the offense and, finding the weaknesses and exploiting them.”