Packers-Saints: 5 things to watch

Published On: Sep 30 2012 12:57:53 AM CDT

THE BASICS

The teams: The Green Bay Packers (1-2) vs. the New Orleans Saints (0-3).

The time: 3:25 p.m. CDT Sunday.

The place: Lambeau Field, Green Bay.

The TV coverage: WITI (Ch. 6 in Milwaukee), WMSN (Ch. 47 in Madison) and WLUK (Ch. 12 in Green Bay).

The announcers: Joe Buck and Troy Aikman in the booth with Pam Oliver reporting from the sidelines.

The coaches: Green Bay's Mike McCarthy is 69-38 (including 5-3 in the postseason) in his seventh season as the Packers' coach and as an NFL head coach. The Saints’ Aaron Kromer is 0-3 as the Saints’ interim head coach with Sean Payton (season) and Joe Vitt (six games) suspended.

The series: The Packers lead the all-time regular-season series, 15-7, and have won 9 of 11 at home – although the Saints have won three of the teams’ last five meetings. The Packers won the most recent meeting, 42-34 at Lambeau Field on Sept. 8, 2011.

The rankings: The Packers’ 25th-ranked offense is No. 28 in rushing and No. 20 in passing. Their third-ranked defense is No. 26 against the run and No. 1 against the pass. The Saints’ 10th-ranked offense is No. 22 in rushing and No. 5 in passing. Their 32nd-ranked defense is No. 32 against the run and No. 25 against the pass.

The line: The Packers are favored by 7.5 points.

The injury report:

PACKERS
Out – S Sean Richardson (hamstring).
Questionable – CB Davon House (shoulder).
Probable – RT Bryan Bulaga (knee), TE Tom Crabtree (shoulder), LB Jamari Lattimore (ankle), RB James Starks (toe), WR Greg Jennings (groin), DE Jerel Worthy (shoulder).

SAINTS
Out – DE Turk McBride (ankle), LB David Hawthorne (hamstring), LB Jonathan Casillas (neck).

THE BREAKDOWN: FIVE THINGS TO WATCH

When the Saints come stumbling in: Drew Brees is as polished and articulate as they come in the NFL. The Saints quarterback is a fan favorite far beyond the borders of Who Dat nation, has a high enough Q rating to do national advertising campaigns (NyQuil, anyone?) and is viewed as one of the league’s most intelligent players. That’s why it seemed so obvious during a conference call with Wisconsin reporters Wednesday afternoon that the Saints quarterback is at his wits’ end amid his team’s 0-3 start, which has occurred with head coach Sean Payton suspended for the season, general manager Mickey Loomis suspended eight games and interim head coach Joe Vitt suspended six games for their roles in the infamous bounty scandal. (Ex-Saints defensive coordinator Gregg Williams had already moved on to St. Louis before he was suspended indefinitely by the league.)

Brees, who is coming off a historic season in which he broke the NFL record for passing yards in a single season, sounded like he was searching for answers, and who could blame him? Even with Payton suspended, some postulated that Brees’ leadership is so strong that the Saints wouldn’t miss a beat. They were wrong, and it’ll be interesting to see how New Orleans responds to a potential 0-4 start during what appeared to be a somewhat soft portion of their schedule.

“It’s been tough, it’s been challenging. When things don’t go the right way, you want to take that very personally. You want to feel like, ‘Hey, what am I not doing? What more can I do?’” Brees confided. “I think those are just the natural feelings of somebody who feels like they can really control the situation, especially when you’re a leader on the team and certainly the quarterback. I think there’s a balance to doing that and yet not putting too much pressure on yourself.

“There’s this balance of, ‘Hey, I just need to worry about the things I can control. I need to worry about doing my job to the best of my ability.’ The thing with the quarterback position is you feel like, ‘Hey, I can influence others,’ whether it’s by what I say to them or putting them in positions to succeed. I think the mark of a great quarterback is you make everyone around you better. … So, yeah, as the quarterback of the team, I take it very personal and I want to get this thing turned around just as much as anybody.”

Inspired by Sproles: One of the things that came out of the Packers’ season-opening victory over the Saints last year at Lambeau Field: McCarthy getting an up-close look at Darren Sproles, the Saints’ matchup-nightmare running back and returner. In the Packers’ 42-34 victory, Sproles was a threat as a runner, a pass-catcher and a returner, and that experience helped shape McCarthy’s plan for second-year wide receiver/running back/returner Randall Cobb.

“Darren’s a dynamic player, and he’s very versatile,” McCarthy said during the week. “We feel like we have a similar player in Randall Cobb, so the training camp reps is probably the best preparation for our defense as far as the things we do on offense competitively against our defense.”

Sproles, who would go on to set the NFL single-season all-purpose yardage record, scored on a 72-yard punt return and also had a 57-yard kickoff return against the Packers last year, but it was his work out of the backfield that inspired McCarthy to get creative with Cobb. So far this season, Cobb has been a Sproles-like threat out of the backfield, where he’s lined up and caught passes and also run the ball like a back.

Officially ready to move on: You got the sense that game day could not come soon enough for the Packers this week after Monday’s debacle in Seattle. So much of the focus was on the infamous “Inaccurate Reception” – and rightfully so, no matter what the league’s explanation might’ve said – that when the regular officials agreed to come back to work on Wednesday, it simply kept the conversation going, along with Lance Easley’s willingness to chat with TMZ.

To their credit, the Packers seemed to take a cue from their even-keeled head coach and didn’t let the talk become a distraction, staying on the high road – once they got off Twitter, that is – and focusing on their preparation. The proof will be in the game, though, because they simply cannot afford to lose this one.

“I think our locker room’s strong. I think the character in the locker room is very high. It definitely was emotional, but when it was time to turn the page, they turned the page,” McCarthy said. “I think that was probably the most important part of it. Because any time you go through a challenge and it doesn’t go the way you’d like, letting things linger is just really a waste of time and energy. I’m proud of the way our guys handled it. … You always look for progress in your preparation throughout the week. I feel very confident that we’re ready.”

Now, we’ll see if the regular officials are ready. The Packers get the crew of referee Jeff Triplette, who’s faced plenty of criticism himself over the years.

“(We) can’t really concern myself with the performance of the officials. We took the same approach with the replacement officials,” McCarthy said. “We had conversation about approaching the game differently as far as the rules, pushing the envelope, being aggressive. We chose not to, we felt it was important to continue to work at playing the game the right way with the fundamentals and technique and the approach to the rules. We’ll continue to take the same approach.”

Tight end talent: While Packers fans continue to wait – in some cases, not so patiently – for tight end Jermichael Finley to realize his potential, Saints tight end Jimmy Graham offers a vision of what a player reaching that potential can do. Last season, Graham caught 99 passes for 1,310 yards and 11 touchdowns, while Finley finished with 55 catches for 767 yards and eight scores. It’s hard to see a significant talent gap between the two players, and while Finley plays in a spread-it-around offense where he isn’t the clear go-to guy, he still could take a thing or two from watching Graham, who has 17 catches for 172 yards and three touchdowns in three games.

Interestingly, McCarthy made a comment about the Graham-Brees relationship during the week after seeing the two of them together at the Pro Bowl last year. It was hard not to wonder whether he might’ve been hinting at the difference between their relationship and the one Finley has with quarterback Aaron Rodgers.

“Jimmy Graham, I would definitely say he’s a dynamic football player watching him from afar,” McCarthy said. “Like I’ve said before about other Pro Bowl players, when you have a chance to be around a player at the Pro Bowl, just to see his personality and his work ethic up close, he’s a very impressive athlete. You can see the detail in his approach to the game of football. You can see the relationship that Drew Brees and Jimmy have and how they’re really on the same page just in the preparation leading up to that game. I was obviously impressed with them before we had an opportunity to coach those guys in Hawaii, and my appreciation was higher after I left.”

Pickett of the litter: They don’t get more unsung on the Packers defense than Ryan Pickett, the wily old 12-year NFL veteran who quietly stuffs the run, clogs lanes and occupies blockers to allow the linebackers behind him to flow to the football. But quietly, he’s having one of his best seasons, according to McCarthy.

“Ryan’s really playing some of the best ball of his career here. He’s really been a good fit for us in ability,” McCarthy said. “I think people realize what kind of athlete Ryan Pickett is. His foot speed and his balance, his athletic ability for a big guy is unique. He’s off to a good start. He’s a very consistent guy. (He) doesn’t get a lot of attention like a lot of the big guys do. (But) Ryan’s always been a quality player but he’s such a steady force in our locker room. I just love the way he goes about his business. Very consistent, and he’s playing very consistent.”

THE PREDICTION

There’s a reason they play on a DD Grassmaster natural/artificial hybrid and not on paper. On the stat sheet, the Saints’ 32nd-ranked defense should be just what the doctor ordered for what ails the Packers’ scuffling offense. But there’s no guarantee that the Saints’ D, which is allowing more than 477 yards per game and 215 yards a game on the ground, will cooperate. On the flip side, the Saints’ offense remains potent, even though Brees and his guys aren’t dominating the way they did last year. Still, the guess here is the highly motivated Packers, in the wake of the “Inaccurate Reception,” will come out inspired and replicate what the game looks like on paper. Packers 38, Saints 28. (Record: 1-1.)

– Jason Wilde