The 1-1 New Orleans Saints host the 2-0 Green Bay Packers in a Sunday Night Football showdown that not only pits two of the NFL's best teams against each other but will also showcase two future Hall of Fame quarterbacks. While a statistical face-off between Drew Brees and Aaron Rodgers has most of the national attention, both the Saints and Packers are among the league's most balanced teams on each side of the ball.
Here are some of the key matchups to watch in this battle of NFC contenders.
WRs EMMANUEL SANDERS/TRE'QUAN SMITH vs. CBs JAIRE ALEXANDER/KEVIN KING
New Orleans All-Pro wide receiver Michael Thomas will miss his second straight game with an ankle injury. Without him against the Raiders, four Saints wideouts combined for 11 catches and 152 of quarterback Drew Brees’ 312 passing yards. Tre'Quan Smith was the most productive wideout, pulling in five receptions for 86 yards, but just one catch in the second half.
Veteran receiver Emmanuel Sanders, who the Saints added this offseason to reduce Thomas's defensive attention, managed only 1 catch for 18 yards against Las Vegas and has just four catches through two games. The New Orleans wideouts must get on track to help jump-start a struggling Saints passing game that hasn't made plays downfield.
Jaire Alexander and Kevin King are one of the most underrated cornerback duos in the league. The two have given up a combined 163 yards and only one touchdown while in man coverage through two games. Alexander is an athletic corner with an outstanding change of direction who can shadow an opponent's top wideout. King is a lanky defender with long arms and has great anticipation.
CBs MARSHON LATTIMORE/JANORIS JENKINS vs WRs ALLEN LAZARD/MARQUEZ VALDES-SCANTLING
Five Las Vegas wideouts combined for 8 receptions, 117 yards and a score against the Saints last week. Not overwhelming numbers, but New Orleans forced only two incompletions when those receivers were targeted, and the entire secondary had several coverage breakdowns in key moments. Lattimore and Jenkins are among the NFL's best tandem of corners, each capable of taking on any of the league's best wideouts in man coverage. Neither has allowed a touchdown pass yet this season, and they've combined to break up four passes with Jenkins grabbing one of the team’s two interceptions.
Green Bay Pro Bowl WR Davante Adams leads the team with 17 receptions for 192 yards and two touchdowns, but will probably miss this game with a hamstring injury. Lazard and Valdes-Scantling are two big-bodied receivers that can get deep and run very well after a short reception. They have a combined 14 catches for 268 yards and two scores, and give Rodgers trusted targets to spread the football.
SAINTS INTERIOR OFFENSIVE LINE vs PACKERS DEFENSIVE LINE
Drew Brees has been sacked just once this season, but he’s been hit 10 times. Seven of those were against Las Vegas, and he's been pressured on several other throws this year. Tackles Ryan Ramczyk and Terron Armstead have a key duel against Green Bay edge rushers Za'Darius Smith and Preston Smith, who combined for 23.5 sacks in 2019 and 2.5 this year. Armstead and Ramczyk form the league's best pair of tackles and have consistently shut down the NFL's finest pass rushers.
The Saints have struggled, both down the stretch of last season and early this year, establishing control on the interior. Center Erik McCoy, along with guards Andrus Peat, Nick Easton, and rookie Cesar Ruiz, must stave off inside pass rushers to give their quarterback time to survey the field. They must also create running room for backs Alvin Kamara and Latavius Murray for the team to have a balanced attack. Especially against a vulnerable Green Bay run defense that has been gashed often over the last two seasons.
The Packers could be without their best inside defender and one of the league's best interior rushers, Pro Bowl NT Kenny Clark, who is questionable with a groin injury. Green Bay's run defense ranked 23rd a year ago and is giving up an average of 5.2 yards per rush this season, 30th in the league. Without Clark, they will attack New Orleans inside with Kingsley Keke, Dean Lowry, and Montravius Adams, who have yet to register a QB pressure this season. Look for the Packers to move the Smiths or second-year DE Rashan Gary (2 sacks) inside in some situations also, a successful strategy used by other opponents against the Saints.
DENFENSIVE END, CAM JORDAN vs. RIGHT TACKLE, RICK WAGNER
Jordan made his fifth Pro Bowl a year ago after a career-high 15.5 sacks, his third straight season of double-digit sack totals. So far in 2020 he has yet to register a sack and has only one QB pressure. He was held to just three tackles and did not have a single pressure on the quarterback by a third-string offensive lineman in last week's loss to the Raiders. The 31-Yr old Jordan is rarely held in check for long and seems due for a breakout performance. New Orleans needs another big game from its talented defensive tackles, who have played well this season, to hurry Aaron Rodgers and contain Green Bay's outstanding running back Aaron Jones. IIt is Cam Jordan, who is the primary difference-maker for the Saints upfront.
PLAYER TO WATCH: JARED COOK, TIGHT END
After a slow start in 2019, Cook caught 43 passes for 705 yards and 9 touchdowns in his first year with the Saints and was one of the league's most productive tight ends down the stretch of the year. He started 2020 by catching five passes for 80 yards against the Buccaneers but had just two receptions on five targets for 13 yards against the Raiders.
The Green Bay defense has allowed opposing quarterbacks to complete all seven targets to tight ends this season for 101 yards. The Packers allowed big games to eight different tight ends in 2019, showing vulnerability down the field against the position. Packers LB Christian Kirksey, along with safeties Adrian Amos and Darnell Savage, questionable for this game with a groin injury, now take on the tall task of another top tight end.
At 6’5” 254 lbs, Cook has a size advantage over most defensive backs and is an athletic mismatch for most linebackers. In a game where the Saints will be without the league's best receiver, Cook's ability to make plays down the field against a defense that has struggled against tight ends could be the tonic to get the Saints passing game on-track.