After an offseason that felt like an eternity, the New Orleans Saints finally kick off their 2021 regular season with a showdown against the Green Bay Packers.
The contest was originally supposed to be hosted by the Saints in the newly renamed Caesars Superdome. Instead, the game will be played in Jacksonville because of the damage inflicted by Hurricane Ida to the Gulf Coast region.
New Orleans will have a different look after being forced to part ways with several starters and key contributions this offseason for salary cap reasons.
The most noteworthy departure was legendary quarterback Drew Brees, who retired after 15 record-breaking seasons with the Saints.
With Brees gone, the Saints will have a new opening day starter at quarterback for the first time since 2005.
Twenty-seven-year-old Jameis Winston gets the first crack at running coach Sean Payton's offense after winning a training camp competition with Taysom Hill for the job.
Winston's first start with the Saints comes against a Green Bay team that’s gone 13-3 in each of the last two years. He’ll have to do it without All-Pro WR Michael Thomas, who could be sidelined until mid-season after ankle surgery.
There are plenty of intriguing matchups on both sides of the ball that will determine this clash between two of the NFL's most talented teams. Most of the nation will be watching how the New Orleans offense operates with Winston stepping in for Brees.
Let's look at how the New Orleans passing attack matches up against Green Bay's pass defense.
SAINTS PASS OFFENSE VS. PACKERS PASS DEFENSE
New Orleans Passing Attack
New Orleans ranked fifth in scoring offense in 2020, but just 12th in total yardage. They ranked 19th in passing offense, averaging 235 yards per game through the air. It was the lowest aerial output during Sean Payton's 15-year tenure as head coach.
Injuries to Brees and Michael Thomas were major reasons for the struggles of the passing game last season. Additionally, the Saints struggled with injuries and inconsistent play at the wide receiver position.
With Brees now gone and Thomas again injured, the reins are turned over to Winston and a wideout group with few new faces from last year. Alvin Kamara led the Saints in receiving last year with 756 yards on a career-high 83 receptions.
Kamara is a rare weapon that is effective from anywhere in the offensive formation. He’ll be used on screens and check-down passes, but will also split out wide to threaten defensive backfields.
Second-year WR Marquez Callaway emerged as the team's top receiver in preseason and training camp. Callaway showed promise as an undrafted rookie, catching 21 passes for 213 yards in 10 games.
Callaway has proven to be an effective route runner and will be used in Thomas' role to start the year. He also has the athleticism to beat defenses deep down the field.
Third-year WR Deonte Harris has established himself as the most explosive kick returner in the league. He also showed promise as a receiver, before injuries derailed his year in 2020. His size (5’6” and 170-Lbs) raises some questions whether he can hold up for a full season as the number two wideout.
In 10 games including playoffs, Harris had 28 receptions on 32 targets for 269 yards. He’s a scoring threat from anywhere on the field because of his speed and elusiveness with the ball in his hands. Harris has also shown the route precision to be a reliable target underneath.
One player who hasn't shown reliability is fourth-year WR Tre'Quan Smith. Injured most of training camp, Smith has never been able to be a consistent threat for the New Orleans offense despite several opportunities.
Veteran WR/RB Ty Montgomery is a versatile player for the offense and was moved to receiver in training camp. Undrafted third-year wideout Lil'Jordan Humphrey also adds a physical presence on intermediate routes.
Veteran wideouts Chris Hogan and Kevin White were re-signed to the practice squad to provide experience for the unit. Someone among the team's receiving corps needs to step up and provide the offense with a consistent threat.
Another player switching positions is second-year TE Juwan Johnson. After impressing the team with his blocking ability and physicality as an undrafted rookie wideout, Johnson starred in training camp as a tight end.
Johnson brings intriguing athleticism to the tight end spot, but the starter there is expected to be Adam Trautman, a third-round draft choice in 2020. Trautman is a terrific blocker with reliable hand and the speed to threaten defenses down the seam. He had a quiet training camp and was injured in a preseason win over Jacksonville, leaving him questionable for this game.
Screen passes have always been a big weapon in the Saints offensive arsenal. Kamara is the league's most dangerous weapon in that capacity. Expect Winston to also use reserve running back Tony Jones Jr in that role to spread the ball around.
Taysom Hill may have lost the quarterback battle to Winston, but should still be an important offensive weapon this fall. He’ll be used in a variety of different situations. Hill's versatile skills test a defense, whether it’s as a runner, pass catcher, or thrower.
Winston has the luxury of having the NFL's finest offensive line to protect him. Tackles Ryan Ramczyk and Terron Armstead routinely silence the league's best edge rushers in one-on-one battles.
Center Erik McCoy, along with guards Cesar Ruiz and Andrus Peat, must give Winston a clean interior pocket to go through his reads.
Green Bay Pass Defense
The Packers, like the Saints, are more known for offensive production because of QB Aaron Rodgers. Green Bay has built a solid defensive squad that keeps them in any game if their offense falters.
Green Bay ranked ninth in total defense in 2020 and 13th in points allowed. Their pass defense ranked 7th, giving up 221 yards/game. The Packers intercepted just 11 passes last season and opposing quarterbacks completed nearly 65% of their throws against them.
Cornerback Jaire Alexander is one of the finest cover men in the NFL. Alexander is coming off a Pro Bowl year where he had just one interception, but allowed only 51% completion percentage when targeted for a meager 375 yards and 2 touchdowns.
Alexander is complemented by CB Kevin King, a big and physical defender who's had consistency issues in coverage. Green Bay added speedy Georgia CB Eric Stokes with their first-round draft choice to upgrade the unit’s athleticism.
Adrian Amos and Darnell Savage make up a pair of intelligent safeties that have underrated coverage skills. Savage led the Packers with 4 interceptions last year and finished second only to Alexander with 12 passes broken up. Amos had 2 picks and broke up 9 passes while leading the team in tackles.
Green Bay had 41 sacks in 2020, but 12.5 of those were from Pro Bowl edge rusher Za'Darius Smith, one of the league's most overlooked pass rushers. Preston Smith and Rashan Gary complement Smith along the edge. They combined for 9 sacks and 22 QB knockdowns last season.
The Packers hope to get more interior pressure from DT Kenny Clark, Dean Lowry, and Kingsley Keke in 2021. The three combined for 8 sacks and 18 QB knockdowns last year, but disappeared during key stretches.
Taking on the daunting task of trying to stay with Kamara in the open field are linebackers De'Vondre Campbell and Krys Barnes. Campbell played well against Kamara while with the Falcons from 2017 to 2019, but Barnes struggles against elusive backs in the open field.
What To Watch
Alvin Kamara had a whopping 197 yards of total offense when these teams met last September, including 13 receptions for 139 yards and 2 touchdowns. The Packers goal will be to contain Kamara and force Winston to find other weapons to beat them.
Someone will have to emerge for New Orleans as a viable receiving threat. Marquez Callaway seems the most likely candidate, but he’ll often be matched up against Jaire Alexander.
Rhythm and ball security are the two most important things to watch from the Saints offense this Sunday. New Orleans is annually among the least turnover prone offenses in the NFL.
The New Orleans offensive must control the line of scrimmage for the Saints to establish a comfortable rhythm. They need to run the ball effectively to maintain balance, while also keeping pressure off of Winston for him to get into a groove.
Winston's passing talents are undeniable, but he’s also been prone to turnovers and poor decisions throughout his career.
He’ll be challenged to deliver the ball to his playmakers without making mistakes, especially if the Saints have to match Rodgers and the Green Bay offense in a high-scoring affair.