Here we go, Saints fans. I gave this feature a partial test-drive in the preseason, and now I'm ready to unleash it on the poor, unsuspecting regular season.
After the jump, you will find the top four aspects of the Saints-Packers game, in order of importance, that I will be focused on in my viewing, and that I see as being key to a Saints victory.
As always, you are invited to sound off on them or lay out your own 'Hot Reads' in the comment section. I welcome the discussion!
As with the Raiders game, and probably until the newly-reconstituted offensive line reasonably establishes that it is able to do this with regularity, I will identify PROTECT BREES as my primary Primary Option.
The line has two new starters, and they will need to be at their best in this game (as will they all), because from what I've read, Dom Capers employs an amoeba-like, morphing, unpredictable defensive front in which it is extremely difficult to see just where the pressure will be coming from on any given play. It is very similar to the scheme that Rob Ryan and the Cleveland Browns brought to the Dome last October that stymied us to no end. What I remember about that game is that Brees was pressured all day long (while often the OL guys were just standing there trying to figure out who they should block), he had a terrible game, and the Saints lost by 13 points. Oh yeah, and that ridiculous fake punt where dude ran up the gut for 68 yards against the special teams was "cover your eyes crawl under the couch after throwing your hat at the TV" bad (you know exactly what I'm talking about).
Mark my words - this will be the single most important "chess-match matchup of the minds" (to borrow the analogy from the rest of the NFL media) to win this game. If what the Saints are doing early does not work, they must adjust to find something that will work, or you can stick a fork in them because they will be done before halftime.
What I'd like to see: With nearly an entire year to work on it, I hope to high heaven that the coaches have come up with something, anything, to help our guys deal with this kind of scheme, because I imagine we'll see it quite a bit this season. I don't know what it'll take to stop it, but I think I'll know it when I see it, or at least know it when I'm NOT seeing it. Good communication, no missed assignments, helping each other out, and crisp/clean center-QB exchanges, would at least be steps in the right direction.
Checkdown # 1
Given that I see this game being a low-scoring, close contest in which points will be at a premium (I'm talking 21-20, 23-20, 20-17 territory), even more so than the usual (key to the game: score more than the other team - duh), so John Kasay needs to get his kicks.
I have joked with my family about how it's great that Kasay stunk up the joint right from the start because now we can just never expect him to make a kick so when he does, it's an unexpected bonus. However, in all seriousness, THIS IS HUGE.
Kasay's a leftie, and with a week of practice under his belt with coach Greg McMahon, LS Justin Drescher, holder Chase Daniel, and the rest of the gang, this has got to be working well Thursday night.
If it doesn't, then you have all the strategic implications that follow, such as: if he misses early, does Payton stick with him to boost his confidence, or does he start going for it on some 4th downs when maybe he'd really rather take the three points? If he misses an XP, do we then go for two after the next TD to make up for it? (I know he's not here anymore, but this was a part of Haslett's tenure that drove me UP THE WALL - we always seemed to go for two early when it didn't make sense and then end up having to go for two later because we had missed earlier and as a result we'd leave points on the field that we could have had on the scoreboard by just kicking all the XPs - GAAAA!! Haslett!!!!!)
What I'd like to see: A blowout in which we take a huge lead early so that it just doesn't matter how Kasay performs. But since I don't really see that as happening, I'll settle for a game in which he gets and succeeds on a couple of mid- to short-range opportunities, and hits all the XPs (putting us on the good side of any of those low-scoring outcomes I listed above).
Checkdown # 2
The elusive, endangered species known as the balanced offense must be not only found and preserved, but implemented effectively.
The key word here is effectively. I'm not talking about a perfect 50/50 split of runs-to-passes, although if that's how it looks on the stat sheet after a win, I won't complain. I'm talking about an effective use of both the run and the pass, as needed throughout the game, based on what is working against what the defense is giving the Saints.
What I'd like to see: That's all good and well, Hans, but just what in the hell does that mean? The Saints need to be strong in running, able to convert that third-and-short on the ground so the Packers can't just jam the TEs and WRs and disrupt that quick pass to stop a drive, and late in the game if the Saints need a grind-it-out, clock-consuming drive. On the other hand, the Saints also need to have the passing game viable at the mid- and long-range levels to bail them out in case they get into the occasional second- or third- and long, for simple variety of attack, and to help open up the running game. (I feel like this needs more here, but I just can't quite formulate it coherently right now, so maybe someone who agrees can help with more explanation in the comment section.)
I considered making this one tackling (so maybe it's actually a "1-a" here that doesn't need explanation), but then thought more about the low-scoring close game I think it'll be, and came up with something else: field position.
The Saints have had a good deal of turnover in the last week among the ranks of the reserves and special teamers, going with more youth to improve that area of the Saints game, at least according to Triplett in Sunday's T-P Saints 2011 Preview. With these new faces in place, it's natural to wonder how well they will do, because breakdowns or excellent play can either save or break the game for the Saints by granting a strategic advantage by way of starting field position on each drive.
What I'd like to see: These new guys need to cover the actual kicks well, bring down the return men hastily, and not commit penalties in order to keep Green Bay far from the end zone at the start of each drive. Morstead will also need to kick it well. Lots of touchbacks and fair catches would be nice.
On the flip side, those same guys need to block well on returns to allow Courtney Roby and Darren Sproles to make clean catches, run straight ahead while following the blocking schemes in place, and hang on to the ball when they get hit, giving our team better field position.
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Be sure to check out the accountability analysis of these 'Hot Reads' in the days following the games. Each week, I plan to publish a post that describes how these factors actually played out in the game, and what impact they had on the outcome.