With the release of the Green Bay Packers 2011 schedule, this would seem like a good time to look back at their first opponent of 2011: the New Orleans Saints.
While I'm sure the Saints did their fans proud last season, it was a bit of a disappointment to follow up a Super Bowl winning season with a first round playoff loss. Part of the problem was a less potent pass offense. They were still among the league's best, but their interception total jumped from 12 to 22. It didn't help that their running game vanished, falling from No. 6 and 131 yards per game in 2009, to No. 28 with 95 yards per game in 2010. The return of a healthy RB Pierre Thomas in 2011 might restore their former success because their backfield was decimated with injuries in 2010.
Their pass defense was actually ranked as the 4th best in 2010, which was one spot ahead of the Packers. But the official rankings are based on yardage, and didn't show that they were last in the NFL with only 9 INTs. And it didn't include their loss to Seattle in the playoffs, when QB Matt Hasselbeck threw 4 TD passes. And their season sack total of 33 was near league average. Their run defense was near league average too, at No. 16 officially, while surrendering 13 rushing TDs. Not a bad stat, but twice as many as the Packers allowed on the ground.
THE EARLY GOING
Starting the season off with a 3-2 record isn't a disaster, but a weak schedule hid their slow start. After defeating the Vikings in Week 1, they barely beat the 49ers, before a disappointing home loss to the Falcons. That might have been the key game of the season. If they could have beaten the Falcons in Week 3, it might have been the Saints with a first round bye and home field throughout the playoffs. They barely beat the 2-14 Panthers the next week, before suffering one of the most embarrassing losses of the regular season in week 5: a loss in Arizona to the Max Hall led Cardinals.
They did bounce back the next week by crushing the Buccaneers in Tampa, but then gave the momentum back with a loss to the Browns at home.
Week 8 was the start of a six game winning streak, and it began with an impressive win over the Steelers. But the team remained inconsistent, with big wins over lesser teams like the Panthers and Rams, along with a couple close wins on the road against non-playoff teams in Dallas and Cincinnati. A close lose in Baltimore took away their last chance to tie the Falcons for the division title, despite a win over the Falcons in Week 16. They ended the regular season with a loss to the Buccaneers, but they had nothing left to play for.
As I mentioned above, the Saints secondary was exposed in a surprising upset loss to the Seahawks during the wildcard playoff game. And it produced one of the most embarrassing plays of the season when RB Marshawn Lynch dragged their entire defense down the field for a long touchdown run.
LOOKING AHEAD TO 2011
This is not a team looking to re-build after a disappointing end to a promising season. Who knows what they'll be able to do in the draft or free agency (when it finally begins) but they are a team that's just a couple of pieces away from returning to a 13-3 season. They're built to win now, and they will be a very tough first opponent in 2011.