Packers have right stuff in Thrilling Opening Victory
By Bob McGinn, Journal-Sentinel
~Green Bay – The previous 11 Super Bowl champions won their first game in the following season.
Now make that 12 after the Green Bay Packers, leading from start to finish, held on to defeat the New Orleans Saints, 42-34, in a wing-dinger of a beginning to the National Football League season Thursday night at Lambeau Field.
“This was a lot different than a regular-season game,” general manager Ted Thompson said. “This was more like a playoff-tempo game. I think both teams geared up for this.”
Although the Packers allowed 477 yards of offense to irrepressible Drew Brees and the Saints’ prolific attack, it was the defense that in the end carried the day.
Five times the Saints drove inside the Packers’ 20-yard line, but all they could muster was 10 points.
The final frustration for New Orleans came with no time left on the clock from the Green Bay 1 after linebacker A.J. Hawk was penalized for pass interference in the end zone.
Never hesitating, coach Sean Payton inserted multiple tight ends and went with Mark Ingram on a power smash, the signature play of the Saints’ ground game and one the Packers worked on all week. On the play, left guard Carl Nicks folds behind right guard Jahri Evans and Ingram tucks in behind.
But the Packers’ 4-4 “hippo” defense wasn’t going to be budged at the point of attack. Slamming in from the outside, linebacker Clay Matthews got a piece of Ingram. Then the rookie from Alabama was finished off by safety Morgan Burnett, cornerback Charles Woodson and linebacker Desmond Bishop as he tried to get airborne over the top.
Thus, the Packers, out-gained 477-399 in a wild-scoring battle against a team they might see four months from now in the NFC playoffs, opened their 91st NFL season with their fifth straight 1-0 start under coach Mike McCarthy.
“I’m sure it was a great game to watch,” said McCarthy. “I’m sure TV’s happy. Our fans are happy. I was happy.”
A crowd of 70,555 sat enthralled on a balmy 68-degree night as the two teams played one of the most hyped and eagerly awaited regular-season games in club annals.
The game exceeded most expectations. Both teams scored on long, breath-taking returns, both teams struggled on defense and both quarterbacks were at the top of their games.
Perfect in the first quarter with a 158.3 passer rating, Rodgers finished at 132.1. Brees was almost as sharp at 112.5.
The only turnover, a fumble by wide receiver Marques Colston on the Saints’ second play from scrimmage, not only led to their early 14-0 deficit but also cost them a possession they could ill afford to lose against a buzzsaw attack like Green Bay’s.
“We’re really aware of how turnovers affect the outcome of a game,” Rodgers said. “To pitch a shutout against a defense that thrives on turnovers, that’s a good night.”
Rookie Randall Cobb tied the NFL record for longest kickoff return with a 108-yard touchdown in the third quarter. It also broke Al Carmichael’s club record of 106 that had stood since 1956.
On the other hand, New Orleans’ Darren Sproles brought back a first-half punt 72 yards for a touchdown and set up another in the third quarter with a 57-yard kickoff return.
On each of the Saints’ four red-zone trips that failed to result in a touchdown, the Packers’ defense made critical plays.
In the second quarter, Charles Woodson made a tremendous breakup of a pass inside the 5 to Colston and the Saints kicked a field goal.
New Orleans had to settle for another field goal early in the third quarter when, on third and 2 from the 7, left tackle Jermon Bushrod inexplicably failed to block linebacker Erik Walden and the result was a 13-yard sack.
Later in the third quarter, the Saints again reached the Green Bay 7 only to be turned away on downs. Jarius Wynn stuffed tight end David Thomas and prevented Ingram from gaining on third and 1, and then on fourth down Wynn pressured Brees into an incomplete pass.
Finally, there was the goal-line stand.
“You have to get the yard,” said Ingram. “Find a way. It was one yard. It was a dive play to go right between the guard and center. They have some great players, and they made a great play jumping over it.”
Gregg Williams, the Saints’ defensive coordinator, partially succeeded in keeping the Rodgers under some semblance of control by digging deep into his vast playbook. Still, the Packers scored 35 points in just 27 minutes of possession time.
“He is one of the top quarterbacks vs. pressure,” Payton said, referring to Rodgers. “We wanted to throw him off balance to some degree. He has a quick release. Statistically, against pressure, he finished No. 1 from an efficiency standpoint.
“We had our opportunities tonight. We play from behind a lot. This is a resilient team.”
Said McCarthy: “That’s the way Aaron plays. He has set that standard. He commands the offense. He’s off to a great start.”
The Packers were gouged repeatedly at the linebacker and secondary levels by Brees, who saw his career mark against Green Bay slip to 2-2. Generally, Brees either had time to throw or danced away from pressure and kept his eyes downfield.
“We had some problems defensively,” said McCarthy. “But that’s a great offense and he’s a great quarterback. We’ve got a lot of work to do.”
In the first half, the Packers jumped to a 14-0 lead and went to the locker room leading, 28-17. Rodgers finished the half with a passer rating of 143.6 compared to 107.0 for Brees.
“On both sides, the defenses were just trying to slow the other side down,” Thompson said. “Those were two really good offenses.”
The Packers marched 76 yards in nine plays with the opening kickoff, scoring on the first of Rodgers’ three touchdown passes in the first half.
After hitting Greg Jennings for a 7-yard score and Jordy Nelson for a 3-yard TD, Rodgers finished off a third straight drive with a 32-yard strike to Cobb.
The Saints tried to switch defenses just before the ball was snapped, but Cobb beat strong safety Roman Harper inside. That left the rookie one-on-one with free safety Malcolm Jenkins, and when Jenkins guessed wrong it turned into a touchdown.
“It was a really good catch to start with,” said Thompson. “Once he got in the open field, it’s a pretty tough call. He can go either way. The safety has to pick a side.”
Late in the second quarter, the Packers went 80 yards in 14 plays climaxed by James Starks’ 17-yard run. Guard T.J. Lang blocked Jonathan Vilma and Starks broke two tackles.
“It was pretty well blocked,” said Thompson. “He’s hard to handle when he’s going north and south.”
The Saints fell behind mainly because of the fumble by Colston on a hit by Nick Collins after he caught a 12-yard slant. The recovery was made by Tramon Williams, who walked off in obvious pain with a right shoulder injury at the 3-minute mark.
Brees made it 14-7 in the first quarter with a 31-yard TD pass to Robert Meachem on third and 1. He beat Williams on an over route.
“Play-action and they got heavy in there,” said Thompson. “We’re playing man-to-man. They’ve got a big receiver running a post and a quarterback who can get it to him.”
The Saints moved within 21-17 on Sproles’ 72-yard punt return for a TD. After crossing the field, Sproles cut up and, taking advantage of a slip by linebacker Brad Jones in the hole, went the distance.
“I thought so,” Thompson said when asked if the Packers had tacklers near Sproles. “He gashed us pretty good. He’s a good punt returner.”
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