The New Orleans Saints and Green Bay Packers face off in a marquee week 1 battle to kick off the 2021 regular season.
Originally scheduled to be in the Ceasars Superdome, the contest was moved to Jacksonville because of damage caused by Hurricane Ida to the Gulf Coast area.
New Orleans is expected to have one of the league's better defensive units in 2021. The Saints are coming off a year where they ranked top-five in nearly every defensive category.
They'll be facing a Green Bay offense that led the league in scoring and finished fifth in total yardage. The Packers are led by QB Aaron Rodgers, the reigning NFL MVP.
Green Bay coach Matt Lafleur stresses offensive balance from his team, but it's still Rodgers and the passing game that keep defensive coordinators awake at night.
It’s pivotal for the Saints to stop the Packers running game to eliminate their balance, but will they be able to contain Rodgers?
SAINTS PASS DEFENSE VS. PACKERS PASSING ATTACK
New Orleans Pass Defense
After early season struggles in 2020, the Saints secondary jelled into one of the NFL's best units. New Orleans intercepted 18 passes, most in the league, and allowed opposing quarterbacks to complete less than 60% of their throws.
Pro Bowl CB Marshon Lattimore is one of the NFL's best at the position. His blend of athleticism and coverage ability allows him to lock down the opposition's top wideout one-on-one. Lattimore allowed less than 53% completion percentage when targeted in 2020, intercepting 2 passes and breaking up 11 others.
The offseason release of CB Janoris Jenkins created a huge void in the secondary for the defense. New Orleans addressed that by using a third-round draft choice on Stanford CB Paulson Adebo. With Ken Crawley on injured reserve, Adebo will likely get his first NFL start.
Adebo is a lanky, but physical defender capable of excelling in man coverage and off-ball duties. Free-agent acquisition Desmond Trufant will also see significant action at cornerback.
Chauncey Gardner-Johnson will also play a big role in the team's coverage packages, as will S/CB P.J. Williams.
Gardner-Johnson has developed into one of the NFL's top players in slot coverage. He led the Saints with 13 passes broken up in 2020 and allowed just 57% completion percentage when targeted. Gardner-Johnson is one of three talented safeties used in a variety of roles for the team's defense.
Free safety Marcus Williams has as much range as anyone in the NFL at the position. He has the speed and anticipation to excel in single-high safety alignments and tied for the team lead with 3 interceptions last season.
Williams is sometimes joined by SS Malcolm Jenkins in deep support. Jenkins, entering his thirteenth season, is also used to disrupt offenses near the line of scrimmage. He isn't as effective in man coverage at this stage of his career, but makes up for it with veteran savvy and experience.
The New Orleans linebackers were a glaring team weakness just a few years ago. No more. A position that entered the offseason with major questions may now be the strength of the entire team. Demario Davis is one of the NFL's best defensive players and is a sideline to-sideline playmaker strong in coverage and as a pass rusher.
Davis is complemented by veteran Kwon Alexander and second-year LB Zack Baun. Alexander may be on a limited snap count after a Christmas Day Achilles injury last season. Baun is coming off a tremendous training camp and preseason showing.
Linebacking depth is provided by promising rookie Pete Werner, a second-round pick, along with role players Kaden Elliss and Andrew Dowell. The entire unit is full of athletic and versatile players who are strong in coverage.
The Saints defense is fueled by a disruptive pass rush. New Orleans had 45 sacks and registered 113 QB hits in 2020 and has 145 sacks over the last three seasons.
Defensive coordinator Dennis Allen plays an aggressive scheme and won't hesitate to heavily blitz opposing passers. A strength of this defense is their ability to create disruption without being forced to blitz.
New Orleans will have potentially the league's deepest corps of edge rushers. Perennial Pro Bowler Cameron Jordan looks to rebound from a subpar season by his standards. DE Marcus Davenport looks to finally fulfill his first-round promise after a monstrous preseason.
New Orleans spent a first-round draft choice on DE Payton Turner to further strengthen their edge rush. Coaches also love the potential of third-year DE Carl Granderson and brought in an underrated free-agent addition in former Chiefs DE/DT Tanoh Kpassagnon.
Star DT David Onyemata will miss the first six games of the year while serving a league suspension. His absence creates questions for a defensive tackle spot thin on experience after the offseason losses of Malcom Brown and Sheldon Rankins and season-ending injury to Jalen Dalton.
Green Bay Passing Attack
The Packers ranked ninth in passing offense a year ago. Aaron Rodgers threw for 4,299 yards and led the league with 48 touchdown passes and a 70.7% completion percentage.
Rodgers rarely turns the ball over. He threw just five interceptions, and the Packers turned the ball over a league-low 11 times. At 37-years-old, he still has the mobility to escape the rush. Rodgers was sacked just 20 times in 546 dropbacks.
Green Bay's offensive line may struggle with cohesion early in the year. All-Pro LT David Bakhtiari will miss the season opener with an injury. Elgton Jenkins moves over from his starting guard position to take Bakhtiari's spot.
Right tackle Billy Turner is the only projected offensive line starter to begin the season at his same position from last year. The Packers will also be giving two rookies their first NFL starts in C Josh Meyers and RG Royce Newman.
Despite his complaints, Rodgers has a talented crew of pass catchers at his disposal. Pro Bowl WR Davante Adams is one of the league's most productive pass catchers. Adams is coming off a career-high 115 receptions for 1,374 yards and a league-best 18 touchdowns.
Allen Lazard and Marquez Valdes-Scantling are two big-bodied wideouts who run well after the catch. The two combined for 80 receptions, 1,141 yards, and 9 scores last year.
Green Bay also brought back a former Rodgers teammate when they traded for veteran speedster Randall Cobb. They then added another playmaker in rookie third-round pick Amari Rodgers.
Tight end Robert Tonyan was second on the team in receptions in 2020, pulling in 52 of 59 targets for 586 yards and 11 touchdowns. Tonyan is an underrated athletic target who thrives in the red zone. He’ll be backed up by third-year TE Jace Sternberger.
The Packers don't feature their running backs in their passing game, but RB Aaron Jones is an effective check-down option and dangerous in the open field.
What To Watch
Marshon Lattimore (knee) was downgraded to questionable on the injury report and could be a game-time decision. If he plays, look for the Saints to match him up one-on-one with Davante Adams as often as possible.
Adams missed last year's game between these teams, but Lazard had a big night with 6 receptions for 146 yards and a score. The Saints safeties and linebackers must contain the Green Bay tight ends, a position that scorched them for 8 catches, 104 yards, and two touchdowns last year.
Lattimore's presence is vital for a New Orleans cornerback unit that will be under the microscope.
Even if he plays, expect Rodgers to heavily target the rookie Adebo and veteran newcomer Trufant. The Saints will protect them with safety help over the top, while using their linebackers in coverage underneath and on the tight ends.
If New Orleans can hold up in coverage and halt the Green Bay running attack to eliminate balance, then the Saints disruptive pass rush should have a big advantage against the Packers reshuffled line.
The Saints may not be able to force many sacks or interceptions of Rodgers. They do have the personnel in their front seven to force the reining MVP into rushed decisions, perhaps getting key defensive stops to turn the game.
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