Five Days to Kickoff: 5 Packers at Saints Keys to Game

Bill Huber

GREEN BAY, Wis. – New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees will turn 42 one day before the NFC Divisional playoffs. Will it be a happy birthday, filled with football and family? Or will it be one focused on family and his football future?

In Monday night’s loss to the Las Vegas Raiders, Brees completed 26-of-38 passes for 312 yards, with one touchdown, one interception and a passer rating of 91.1. In a Week 1 victory at home against Tampa Bay, Brees was 18-of-30 for 160 yards with two touchdowns, no interceptions and a rating of 96.5.

To be sure, Brees hasn’t been awful. He just hasn’t been Brees. In 2017, he set an NFL record by completing 72.0 percent of his passes. In 2018, he beat that mark with a 74.4 percent completion rate. Last year, he fell just short at 74.3 percent. In fact, he owns five of the six most-accurate seasons in NFL history. In the small sample size that is this season, he’s 24th at 64.7 percent.

“My job is to execute the offense,” Brees said after Monday’s game. “So, I’ve always evaluated myself on being a good decision-maker. And so, at the end of the day, I’m going to throw the ball to the open guy, move the ball down the field, score points, help us win football games. That’s my job. My job is not to have the most air yards, or throw the ball down the field the most, or anything like that. My job is to help us win. My job is to help put everybody around me in a position to succeed and that’s all I’m focused on.”

While Brees has struggled, he has destroyed the Green Bay Packers. In seven career games, he’s averaged 363.7 passing yards, thrown 18 touchdowns vs. four interceptions, and fashioned a 110.4 passer rating. His fewest passing yards came in 2014, a 44-23 romp in which he threw for 311 yards with three touchdowns and zero interceptions.

Here are more keys to Sunday night's game in New Orleans.

2: Aaron vs. Alvin

Obviously, Packers running back Aaron Jones will have nothing to do with Saints running Alvin Kamara, or vice-versa. Nonetheless, these are two of the most dynamic backs in the NFL. Through two games, Jones is No. 1 in the NFL among running backs with 312 yards from scrimmage.

“I still don’t feel like I have reached my full potential, so continue to work to get there,” Jones said on Sunday after a career day of 168 rushing yards and 236 scrimmage yards. “I left some plays out there today, so just go look back at the film and clean those up and get my best game out there.”

Kamara is fifth this season with 241 scrimmage yards and fourth since entering the NFL in 2017 with 4,717. In the loss to the Raiders, he caught all nine targets for 95 yards. That’s a problem; the Lions’ D’Andre Swift caught all five targets for 60 yards.

The Saints might not have star receiver Michael Thomas, who shattered the single-season record with 149 receptions last year. He was inactive on Monday with an ankle injury. The Packers might not have star receiver Davante Adams, who missed most of the second half of Sunday’s game with a tight hamstring.

If the teams’ top receivers are unavailable, their big-play, do-it-all running backs might take on an even bigger role.

3: Air Jordan

Green Bay’s offensive line was filled with questions entering the season but it has performed superbly. Green Bay is No. 1 in sack percentage allowed and yards per rushing attempt, a tribute to the big guys up front.

Up next is a big challenge. The Saints’ Cameron Jordan finished third in the NFL with 15.5 sacks last season and is third with 40.5 sacks since the start of the 2017 season. Jordan lines up almost exclusively on the defense’s left side, meaning against the right side of the offensive line. The Packers started Week 1 with Elgton Jenkins at right tackle and Week 2 with Rick Wagner at right tackle. Will it be Wagner or Billy Turner’s turn in a key spot in a big game? Wagner has allowed two pressures in about six quarters, according to Pro Football Focus.

4: Fine Line

Speaking of big guys, there might not be a better offensive line than the quintet the Saints will field on Sunday. It is anchored by left tackle Terron Armstead, who allowed just one sack last season and none thus far this season. He is joined by left guard Andrus Peat, center Erik McCoy, right guard Nick Easton and right tackle Ryan Ramczyk. Ramczyk, the former Wisconsin standout, has allowed one pressure in two games. If there’s a tackle tandem that keep the Smith Bros. and Rashan Gary away from Brees, it’s Armstead and Ramczyk.

That group will pose an enormous challenge to Green Bay’s defensive front. According to PFF, the Saints’ line hasn’t given up a sack this season and yielded the second-fewest last year with 10. It’s not just the passing game, obviously. Green Bay’s run defense must improve; a healthy Kenny Clark certainly would help. The Saints are looking for improvement, too, after averaging just 3.7 yards per carry to start the season.

5: Former Packers

Three former Packers players are on the Saints’ offense: tight end Jared Cook, do-it-all quarterback Taysom Hill and running back Ty Montgomery.

Cook, who has seven catches for 93 yards and one touchdown to start this season, caught a career-high nine touchdown passes last year, his first with the Saints. He’ll live forever in Packers lore with his toe-tapping catch at the sideline, a 35-yard grab on third-and-20 that set up Mason Crosby’s game-winning field goal in the 2016 playoffs at Dallas.

Hill, an undrafted free agent in 2017, failed to make Green Bay’s roster after an impressive training camp. He latched on with the Saints, with coach Sean Payton taking advantage of Hill’s size and speed to make him a utility player. Last season, Hill rushed for 156 yards (5.8 average), caught 19 passes for 234 yards and six touchdowns, and went 3-of-5 as a passer. The 30-year-old hasn’t done much this season, with only five rushes and one reception, but it stands to reason that Payton would feature him against his former team.

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