The New Orleans Saints start off the 2021 regular season with a showdown against a fellow NFC contender, the Green Bay Packers.
Originally scheduled to be played in the Ceasars Superdome, damage to the region from Hurricane Ida caused the game to be moved to Jacksonville.
New Orleans won their fourth straight NFC South championship in 2020 on the strength of a formidable defense. The Saints owned a top-five ranking in every major defensive category, aiding an offense battered by injuries.
They take on a Green Bay team coming off back-to-back appearances in the NFC title game. The Packers were first in scoring and fifth in total offense in 2020. While QB Aaron Rodgers garners most of the national attention, the key to Green Bay's success has been offensive balance.
Packers coach Matt Lafleur stresses an effective running game to take some pressure off Rodgers and his receivers. They’ll have to do it against one of the best run defenses in the NFL. The Saints have finished in the league's top-five run defenses in each of the last three years.
Most of the nation will be focused on Rodgers and Saints QB Jameis Winston, who replaces retired future Hall of Famer Drew Brees. This matchup may well come down to how well each team can stop the others rushing attack.
SAINTS RUN DEFENSE VS. PACKERS RUSH OFFENSE
New Orleans Run Defense
The Saints allowed just 94 yards per game on the ground and 3.9 per carry, both ranking fourth in the league. The 11 rushing touchdowns against New Orleans was the NFL's lowest.
New Orleans held 12 opponents to less than 100 yards on the ground last season and have allowed less than 100 yards rushing in 36 of the last 53 games.
Defensive tackle could be a potential concern for this defense, especially early in the year. Star DT David Onyemata is suspended for the first six games and promising DT Jalen Dalton was lost in preseason with a season-ending injury.
The team had already lost tackles Sheldon Rankins and Malcom Brown this offseason.
Former undrafted players Shy Tuttle, Malcolm Roach, and Christian Ringo will get the bulk of interior snaps, with DE Tanoh Kpassagnon sliding inside on some alignments. An underrated strength of this team previously was its interior depth.
An apparent strength on the 2021 New Orleans defense appears to be its depth at defensive end and linebacker. Ends Cam Jordan, Marcus Davenport, Carl Granderson, rookie first-round pick Payton Turner, and Kpassagnon are as effective against the run as they are pass rushers.
All-Pro LB Demario Davis is one of the NFL's best defensive players any position. He’s a fearsome sideline-to-sideline defender who explodes into opposing backfields to blow up running plays at their inception.
Davis is complemented by perhaps the deepest group of linebackers in franchise history. Starter Kwon Alexander was re-signed and is making an incredible recovery from an Achilles injury suffered on Christmas Day. He’ll likely be on a limited snap count early in the year.
Second-year LB Zack Baun has shown remarkable development over the offseason. He was one of the team’s standout stars of training camp. Rookie second-round choice Pete Werner had an impressive start to camp before being slowed by injury.
Kaden Elliss, Andrew Dowell, and Chase Hansen all had strong training camps and preseason outings. The entire linebacker unit has athleticism and the versatility to play several roles.
New Orleans has an active secondary that plays a vital role in run support. The abilities of safeties Chauncey Gardner-Johnson and Malcolm Jenkins allow the team to often deploy just two linebackers and use Gardner-Johnson or Jenkins in the tackle box effectively.
Green Bay Rush Offense
The Packers running game averaged 132 yards per game in 2020, ranking eighth in the league. It was their highest rushing output since 2013.
Four-year RB Aaron Jones leads the ground attack. Jones had his second straight 1,000-yard campaign, picking up 1,104 yards and scoring 9 touchdowns while averaging nearly 5.5 yards per carry.
It was a feast-or-famine year for Jones. He had three outings of over 100 yards, but was held to less than 70 yards in eight games.
The 5’9” and 208-Lb back runs with great leverage inside the tackles, but has underrated explosion in the open field to make him a breakaway threat.
Second-year RB A.J. Dillon is expected to be a bigger part of the Green Bay offense this season. He saw limited action as a rookie, picking up 246 yards and 2 touchdowns on just 46 carries.
Dillon isn't the big-play threat that Jones is, but adds a power element to the Packers offense at 6-feet and 247-Lbs.
Rookie RB Kylin Hill was added with a seventh-round pick to bolster Green Bay's running back depth. Hill likely won't see many snaps, but adds another explosive threat to their offense.
The Packers could have some offensive line issues early in the year. All-Pro LT David Bakhtiari will miss this game with injury. His spot will be taken by Elgton Jenkins, a very talented lineman, but normally a starter at guard.
Rookies Josh Meyers (center) and Royce Newman (RG) will be making their first NFL starts. Billy Turner, typically a starter at guard, will slide outside to right tackle.
The Saints defensive tackles, who held up well in preseason, need to win their interior battles to stalemate Green Bay's push up front.
Their ability to do that will allow the Saints defensive ends to crash inside and the athletic linebackers and safeties to flow freely to the ball carrier.
New Orleans held Green Bay to 98 rushing yards when these teams met last September, but allowed several key rushes at crucial moments. The Saints hope to completely nullify the Packers running game this time and make them one-dimensional.
Against Aaron Rodgers, that might be a recipe for disaster with some teams, and the Saints do have major questions at cornerback. With the pass rushing talent New Orleans has and with cohesion questions up front for Green Bay, that also could be the best recipe for a Saints victory.
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