Friday, September 09, 2011

2011 Season Week One; Thursday Night Football

New Orleans Saints 34 @ Green Bay Packers 42

Well, we knew it was going to be a shootout, but wow. Just wow. 42 to 34, with the Saints having a shot wit no time on the clock from the 1 yard line to make it 42-40 and the possibility of a two point conversion to send an amazing game into overtime. But they blew it.

Mark Ingram stuffed, Lambeau Field goes nuts, Saints Coach Sean Peyton looks angry and Commissioner Roger Goodell rubs his hands with glee as the perceived value and entertainment of football shoots up over night.

It would be negligent however to not break down some of the interesting points in this game. For those expecting College style scorelines in every match up this season, don't be fooled. We did see a lot of 3, 4 and 5 receiver sets, which some other teams will also use this year, but what we also saw was some shoddy tackling.

This may or may not be related to the new rules regarding hitting certain players, the volley of fines that we saw last year, and the new rules on how much practice in pads that teams can now do. It may just be related to poor coaching or even just poor play. It may be related to that god forsaken carpet that the Saints like to refer to as "turf" (no it's not, it's a carpet).

Regardless, some of the tackling was terrible. Randall Cobb returned a kick off 108 yards (tying the record for the longest kick off return), but as much as I love Cobb and have said many times that I think he's going to be a great receiver for the Packers, there were more than enough chances for people to get a tackle in.

The same with Darren Sproles's 72 yard punt return. It wasn't so much tackling in this case as people just hesistant to make contact, hesistant to do anything that might draw a flag or a fine. Honestly I worry about football. The culmination of various rule changes and developments is starting to take the sting out of defensive players.

Still, credit where credit is due, both teams let rip with their offenses in search of points and they found plenty of those. Drew Brees ended the game 32/49 for 419 yards and 3 touchdowns. To lose after that kind of performance has to put a serious downer on your week.

He hit a multitude of receivers, with six different guys catching over four passes each; Devery Henderson - 6/9 for 100 yards and a TD, Marques Colston - 6/9 for 81 yards, Darren Sproles - 7/9 for 75 yards, Robert Meachem - 5/8 for 70 yards and a TD, Jimmy Graham - 4/7 for 56 yards and a TD, Pierre Thomas - 4/5 for 37 yards.

Normally those kind of numbers would designate the fact that the Saints had just rolled their opponents over in easy fashion and walked off with the game before the second half had even begun. But here it was merely indicative of the Saints trying to keep up with Green Bay.

21-7 going into the second quarter. That's how explosively the Packers began. And they never really stopped. Aaron Rodgers ended the game 27/35 for 312 yards and 3 TD's. Add on two more touchdowns from backs John Kuhn and James Starks, plus that Cobb kickoff return for a touchdown and you have your ball game.

Yet despite the relatively secondary role that the running game had in this contest, the touchdowns by Starks and Kuhn actually tell us a lot about what went wrong for New Orleans. Compare the red zone efficiency of both teams for a second; The Packers were 4/4, the Saints 1/5. As we've seen from their impressive numbers, the Saints had little trouble pushing the ball down field, they just couldn't finish off some of those drives.

The respective offensive lines had much to do with this, as I outlined yesterday. The Saints defense struggled to generate much pressure and finished the game with 2 sacks and 2 additional QB hits. The Packers had 3 sacks, two more hits from Clay Matthews, and often appeared to be swarming in on Brees at the last second.

The difference was subtle, but it was there. Coupled with the superior performance of the Packers rushing attack, the Green Bay offensive line definitely won that particular battle.

But a little bit of me still thinks that this game might be the exception in terms of scorelines, not the rule. I felt both teams laid back somewhat in terms of their pass rush, something that I don't think they'll a) do again themselves, or b) see other teams try on them. I can't see the Steelers, or the Ravens, or the Jets playing their defense as conservatively as both teams did here.

There is still no definitive answer as to how you beat a "Spread Offense". Part of the reason is because the term spread offense is used to cover lots of different offenses that are in fact fundamentally different, they just happen to use wide open offensive formations.

But I think one thing we are starting to learn is that sitting back and playing soft coverage is not the answer. This game should stand as a testament to that. As should the success of guys like Rex Ryan against various teams.

Expect to see the pressure get ridiculously dialed up all across the country from now on, as defensive coordinators try to test the opposing quarterbacks mettle - and his offensive line - rather than sitting back and waiting to die by a thousand cuts.

The Saints had a go at it in this game, but they left their corners badly exposed in off coverage and - lacking any natural pass rushers - struggled to get home quick enough. When the Packers tried it they had much more success, although still occasionally found their coverage a little soft.

There's something for you to keep an eye out for this weekend.

Which reminds me, I must pick the winners! But that will be for another day, either Friday or Saturday night, depending on how my schedule pans out. I'm also planning to pick up the "Lombardi Watch" once more, by disectting a recent article from NFL Network analyst Michael Lombardi.

Until then, enjoy your day and your Friday night.

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