Even in the face of significant offseason personnel changes, the New Orleans Saints have generated a certain level of expectation – inwardly, especially. So when they face Green Bay, one of the teams favored to advance to the NFC Championship Game (and more), in the regular-season opener Sunday, Sept. 12 at TIAA Bank Field in Jacksonville, Fla., the Saints won't walk on the field as a team feeling self-pity.
Whether forced to evacuate New Orleans due to Hurricane Ida, or absent a first-ballot Hall-of-Fame quarterback retiring, or opening without three players who rotated as starters at defensive tackle last year, or minus the 2020 starting left cornerback, or lacking one of the league's top receivers, the show goes on.
Here are a few ways that can help the Saints open it in a positive way:
1. TIGHT GRIP: The easiest way to lose a game is to turn over the ball. New Orleans has to be especially careful in that area against a team as formidable as Green Bay; the Saints don't need to give the Packers any extra possessions. And it won't be a bad thing at all if a couple of offensive possessions are 10-play, 75-yard scoring drives that last six minutes or so. The longer New Orleans' offense can keep Green Bay's defense on the field, the better opportunity possibly to wear down the Packers. The Saints' offensive line, as usual, will be critical. It'll have to protect a quarterback, Jameis Winston, who might hold on to the ball a little longer than it became accustomed to with Drew Brees, and create some running lanes and space for Alvin Kamara, one of the league's most dynamic backs.
2. JAMEIS' EDUCATION: We won't totally see all the things that Winston says he learned last year by backing up Brees, but we need to see a few of them. Especially, we need to see the willingness to check it down, take a short completion, and allow the defense to force a punt or produce a turnover, and hopefully give the ball back to the Saints' offense. Yes, Winston has the big arm and he'll add a deep pass element to the offense that'll stretch the field. But decision-making is critical. He doesn't have to be Brees in that area, but he can't be a two-turnovers-per-game player, either. Receivers can help a quarterback with contested catches, no drops, and going all out on routes because with Winston, the route might be live a bit longer. But it's up to Winston to know when to hold 'em.
3. PRESSURE PRINCIPLE: If Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers is comfortable, it might not matter much how well the Saints' offense plays. He's a Hall of Famer the second he becomes eligible, and he's leading an offense that looks stacked with a receiver like Davante Adams (1,374 receiving yards, 18 touchdowns last season) and a running back like Aaron Jones (1,104 rushing yards and nine touchdowns in '20). The best way to combat Rodgers is with pressure. That's easier said than done, because he has a hair-trigger release and he's still mobile enough to run or simply buy time in the pocket. But right defensive end Marcus Davenport could be a key factor in this one, since the Packers will be without left tackle David Bakhtiari, a five-time All-Pro. If the right side of the defensive line can wreak havoc, and left defensive end Cameron Jordan does what he usually does, then the Saints could create enough mayhem to get Rodgers off his timing. That'll be significant.
4. DO SOMETHING SPECIAL: For the first time in a long time, the Saints will open the season with a punter (Blake Gillikin) and kicker (Aldrick Rosas) who never have punted or kicked for them in a regular season game. Each needs to be on top of his game; Gillikin could provide flip-the-field punts, and Rosas might need to make a pressurized field goal if the game is close late. But, too, New Orleans has had one of the league's best overall special team units the last several seasons, so maybe a big punt return (Deonte Harris) or a momentum-swinging tackle (J.T. Gray) is on the agenda. Also, keep an eye on this: Special teams protections aren't always at peak efficiency early in the season. A blocked punt or blocked field goal attempt isn't out of the question.
5. HOME IS WHERE THE GAME IS: Of course, the Saints would rather be playing their home opener in the Caesars Superdome in New Orleans. Of course, they'd rather have a filled-to-capacity venue that often has made a difference in the outcome of games. They won't have that, so the next best thing – the only thing – they'll have is to have their fans create as much of a home-field advantage as possible at TIAA Bank Field. Every little bit helps against a team as good as Green Bay.
ZATARAIN'S KEY INGREDIENTS RECIPE OF THE WEEK:
CHEESY CHICKEN & RICE
Easy, delicious family pleasing supper that's also great as leftovers.