Week 1 of the NFL season is always a little rough on defenses. When there's a limited amount of film to study on new offensive players, formations and plays, the offense has an inherent advantage. Of course, this can go both ways; defenses can use blitz and coverage schemes that an offense has never seen. Still, I firmly believe that the offenses - especially two offenses this good - were always going to have a big advantage in Week 1 when the Green Bay Packers took on the New Orleans Saints.
On Thursday night, the Packers defense was average. It wasn't poor by any stretch of the imagination, especially considering how good Drew Brees and the Saints are, but it certainly was not good. This is partially due to the opponent, partially due to individual performances, and partially due to Dom Capers getting it wrong on a few occasions. However, we all know that this team has talent and that Capers is one of the best coordinators in the business, so there isn't a whole lot to worry about here. Onto game specifics.
There wasn't much to note on the Saints' first drive, except WHAT A HIT BY NICK COLLINS! His helmet to ball shot on Marques Colston forced a fumble after just two plays on offense for the Saints, leading to an easy touchdown for the Pack. Funny thing is, it was a fantastic play call by Sean Payton. Tramon Williams was covering the flat in zone coverage, leaving the slant route wide open. If Collins makes that hit a couple inches in a different direction, it's a 12 yard pickup and a first down. We might be talking about a completely different game, had that happened.
The second drive by the Saints was a major illustration of why offenses can have such a big advantage in Week 1, as Dom Capers' play calls caused the Packers defense to get burned. Darren Sproles picked up 36 yards on third and six from the Saints' 20 as Capers gambled and lost. The Packers put on a big blitz, leaving AJ Hawk to cover Sproles out in a lot of space. Predictably, he was unable to do so.
Robert Meachem scored a touchdown on third and one from the Packers' 31 as Capers guessed wrong. Jarius Wynn and Howard Green joined Ryan Pickett and BJ Raji on the line as the Packers went all-out to stop the run. Meachem ended up in single coverage and went up to get the ball in the end zone. It was a great play call by Payton and an impressive catch by Meachem, but Capers did not put his defense in a position to succeed on this play.
The following Saints drive was an up and down one for the Packers, resulting in a field goal. The highlight for the Saints was a huge run by Pierre Thomas on which the Packers' tackling was downright atrocious. A few plays later, on a third and 14, Capers went with a three man rush and dropped eight into a soft zone, playing behind the first down marker. Devery Henderson got himself wide open and Brees hit him for a 16 yard game. It's quite possible that a couple of players completely missed their assignments and were supposed to be further up the field, but it looked like a terrible call by Capers.
Erik Walden would hold the Saints to a field goal, though, with a fantastic swat on third and four from the Green Bay 12 yard line. Walden was actually excellent in coverage all night long, most notably making another great swat on the Saints' final drive of the first half. However, he was poor against the run. The Saints frequently ran at Walden to their left despite the fact that their right guard, Jahari Evans, is their best run blocker.
The first Saints drive of the half was a microcosm of the entire night for the Packers, filled with highlights and lowlights. BJ Raji had a couple of fantastic stops on the series, while the linebackers were poor against the run. Erik Walden was run at and completely dominated by the Saints blockers on a second and ten just one play after Raji made a big stop, while the biggest play of the drive was a bad error by Desmond Bishop. On a short dump-off pass that should have resulted in little to no gain, Bishop completely whiffed on a tackle of Pierre Thomas, who went on to gain 15 yards.
The drive ended well for the Packers D, though, with Walden recording a sack on third down in the red zone. This was a case where Capers made a fantastic call, as the coverage forced Brees to hold onto the ball way too long.
On the second Saints drive of the half, Sam Shields was absolutely torched by Henderson for a touchdown. Shields is a very intelligent player for a second year guy who isn't even a career cornerback, but he was badly fooled on this play. He's so talented and so intelligent for an inexperienced player that it's completely worth putting up with his occasional bad mistakes, but this was a very, very, very bad mistake.
It appeared that the Saints were going to get right back into the game with their next drive, which went down to the red zone thanks to some solid running, a 13-yard reception by Henderson and a very silly 15-yard penalty, but Capers and the defense got it right on a big play again, shutting down the Saints' offense and forcing Brees into an incompletion on fourth and one from the Packers' seven yard line.
I'm not going to lie...I was way too into the fourth quarter/way too tired by adjusting to watching football games around midnight to take great notes during the fourth quarter, as I mentioned earlier in the offensive review. I'll probably get a lot better about this in the coming weeks. So, a couple quick notes on the end of the game. One, Drew Brees is insane in the two minute drill. I don't blame Capers or the defense at all for letting the Saints back into the game late. Two, the SEC is not the NFL. Mark Ingram crumpled like paper in the final play of the game. Welcome to the big show, buddy.
BJ Raji, as if that was possible. He was a monster. Morgan Burnett was also very good.
The linebackers, as a group. Not that they were terrible, but I expected more. Walden was fantastic in coverage, but poor against the run. Matthews was not himself on the pass rush. Bishop and Hawk were poor in coverage, while Bishop had a couple of missed tackles.
What did we learn?
1. With Mike Neal out, we are over-reliant on the 2-4-5 defense, which is a vote of minimal (but not no) confidence in Jarius Wynn, in my opinion.
2. Erik Walden got better at pass coverage. With a lockout and no minicamps. This is awesome.
3. Making the right defensive calls in Week 1 is hard. I'm not going to say a bad word about Dom Capers, even though I felt he got it wrong quite a few times on Thursday night. It's Week 1 against Drew Brees, he gets a pass.
What to watch for next week
Eight in the box. All. Day. Long. I think I'm higher on Cam Newton than the general population, but I'm still going to pack the box, leave his receivers in one-on-one coverage with our corners, and make Newton win the game for Carolina.