September 8, 2011

Saints Rally Comes Up Short in Season Opening Thriller, 42-34

The Saints and Packers welcomed the NFL back on a nationally televised stage with a thriller.  The Saints were more than gracious to their host Aaron Rodgers.

In the end, a furious rally by an unstoppable Drew Brees came up a yard short, on a time-expired play that  followed a defensive penalty.  The Saints' designated short yardage back, first round pick RB Mark Ingram, was stuffed for no gain with 0:00 on the clock and the Saints down by eight.

It was indicative of the night- neither time was contained in the air but the Saints were beaten in the trenches.  It was not a welcome or familiar sight for Saints fans on the first night of real NFL football.

With eight pass plays to two runs, the Packers moved down the field for a touchdown, overcoming a sack by Jonathan Casillas that set up 3rd and 12 with a 16-yard driver to Donald Driver followed by a 36-yard strike to Jordy Nelson.  Rodgers scored three plays later on an easy pitch to Greg Jennings, who was covered man on man by second-year CB Patrick Robinson.  Robinson and many Saints found themselves slipping and sliding over the Lambeau Field turf; indeed, Robinson nearly did a split as his backpedal gave way on Jennings' touchdown.

The Saints ran two plays before S Nick Collins speared the ball out of Marques Colston's grasp with a perfectly-aimed helmet tackle.  The Packers ran six plays and scored on an easy pass to Nelson, who was wide open with S Roman Harper slipped prone in the end zone.

Drew Brees, undeterred, moved the Saints down the field with the first of many exciting plays by Darren Sproles.  One game into the post-Reggie Bush era and fans will remember Sproles' multiple exciting plays.  Beating LB AJ Hawk easy on the textbook runningback slant out of the backfield, Sproles zipped down the middle of the field for a 36-yard gain and the first real positive play for the Saints offense all night, this coming with 5:38 left in the first quarter.

The Saints were also down 14-0 to the Packers early in the team's 2006 matchup, when the Payton-Brees era was in its infancy.  The Saints came back from that deficit to win, something Brees reminded his troops of.  Three plays later Brees looked off the safety and put a high bomb up for grab in the end zone with Robert Meachem in one-on-one coverage.  Meachem went up high and atoned for an earlier drop by making a difficult grab for the first touchdown of the Saints' 2011 season.

At that point, the gunslinging show was on.  Six straight passes by Rodgers and the Packers went up 21-7, this time the final 32 yards were covered by rookie WR/KR Randall Cobb from Kentucky, who made Roman Harper look bad and Malcolm Jenkins look still by blasting through the secondary and sailing into the end zone.  Rodgers, enforcing his crown as one of the elite quarterbacks in the league, was near perfect on the night, throwing through well-positioned coverage regularly.  Early on Rodgers and the Packers picked on CB Patrick Robinson, who after the first quarter played a lot less man coverage.

The Saints replied with a field goal after good gains by Devery Henderson, who had a big night leading all receivers with six catches for 100 yards and touchdown late in the game, and TE Jimmy Graham, who was targeted and locked down by the Packers defense.  John Kasay was perfect on his first night in Saints uniform, pulling the Saints to 21-10 with the first of two field goals and four extra points.

That drive also featured a tackle-breaking, slow-churning unstoppable run by Pierre Thomas, who shook off nine tackle attempts for a 21-yard gain.

The Saints defense finally registered a stop and forced a three-and-out by the Packers with 8:55 to go in the first half.  On that drive, Malcolm Jenkins delivered a jaw-dropping hit on Donald Driver, a big lift to the defense's spirit.

Further erasing Reggie Bush from Saint memories, the electric Darren Sproles was sprung by a great position block by Courtney Roby and zipped down the left sideline for a 72-yard punt return touchdown, the second longest in team history.

Only down 21-17 despite a first quarter drubbing, the Saints defense took the field again only to meet Packers RB James Starks.  The Packers clearly tried to slow the game down with their fifth drive, using Ryan Grant, Starks and some perfectly-executed passes to Jennings to move down the field.  Starks stepped over a low tackle attempt by Malcolm Jenkins and dragged Roman Harper into the end zone to cover the final 17 yards of a 14 play, 6:38 minute drive that gave the ball back to the Saints with 1:59 left.

Brees went to work, hitting Henderson for 15 and Colston for 8 before scrambling and taking a short-loss sack.  On 3rd and 2, Sproles broke free out of a tackle and gained 16 yards and got out of bounds.  It seemed unlikely that the shortest man on the field would turn into the Saints' best weapon of the night, but Sproles was very elusive on his 82 yards of total offense and 130 yards of return yardage.

But the last drive of the half stalled at the Packer 41, and on 3rd and 10 RG Jahri Evans tackled a free-charging rusher who would have leveled the quarterback, drawing a holding penalty.  Evans, who led the league in holding penalties in 2010, committed this one on purpose to save his QB, and it was declined when Sproles was dropped for a loss on a short pass.

Thomas would finish with 31 yards on the ground and 37 on four catches, giving way to the rookie Ingram with carry 13 times for 40 yards.  But the Saints run game would fail them when it came time to convert short yardage, a familiar shortcoming from the 2010 season and something the Saints hoped to remedy with Ingram.

With the ball and down 28-17 to start the half, the Saints established the run with seven Ingram carries.  The rookie picked up good chunks of yardage and found a way to get to the second level on this drive.  On third and 2 at the 7 though, Brees rolled right and, his receivers covered, gave up ground and was sacked way back at the 20, setting up the left-footed Kasay's second field goal and a 28-20 deficit.  Another red zone possession failed to turn into points.

The Packers demoralized the Saints on the kickoff, with Cobb running out eight yards deep, watching Saint defenders peel off or slip down around him, catching Morstead flat-footed in the open and racing with escort for a 108-yard kickoff return touchdown.  Sproles helped revive New Orleans with a 57-yard kickoff return from three yards deep in his end zone.  Three plays later Brees lofted a ball to a streaking Devery Henderson, who blew past Nick Collins for a 29-yard score and a quick counterpunch, with the Saints now down 35-27.

The Saints forced another three-and-out on defense, this one as Rodgers fired incomplete to Driver twice.  Brees took the offense and all the momentum of the game following a 20-yard punt return by Sproles to midfield.  A 13-yard strike to Henderson was followed by a five yard run by Thomas.  After that play, Packers CB Charles Woodson was blocked late by TE David Thomas, but responded with an upper cut to Thomas' chest.  A ref was on top of it for a 15-yard unnecessary roughness penalty.  Payton from the sidelines emphatically signaled that Woodson be ejected, as is the general rule for a thrown punch.

Sproles carried for a tough seven yards down to the Packer nine, and Thomas came up just short on second down.   On third and short, second-year T Charles Brown reported eligible as the sixth lineman, but Ingram was stuffed at the line, his protection sheared away by the Packers' dominant front seven.  Ingram made first contact with his own blocker, David Thomas, and was dropped.

With 3:10 left in the third quarter, on fourth and short, near the goal line, and only down by 8 points, Payton opted to go for it.  The biggest play of the game so far went in the Packers favor, as Brees rolled right again, found no one, reversed field and tried to scramble but was dropped as he threw a desperation pass to Thomas, who was coming back to help block.

The Saints gave up the ball on downs, and, what appeared to be the game at that point.  Because Rodgers chewed away at Gregg Williams' defense on a 12-play, 93-yard drive that ended with FB John Kuhn walking into the end zone on a one-yard dive. The Packers didn't encounter a single third down on the drive until Kuhn's goal line score.  After the Saints went three and out, with Brees sacked hard on 3rd and 4, the Packers were up a seemingly insurmountable 42-27 with 11:52 left.

The Packers ran four straight running plays and seemed set on grinding away the final minutes, but the Roman Harper blitzed free on second down and dropped Rodgers with Junior Galette's help, setting up 3rd and 17.  Jabari Greer dropped WR James Jones for no gain and the Packers punted with 5:43 left, up by 15 points.  Brees went back to it, in full press, hitting Henderson for 18 and Graham for 21.  Pierre Thomas picked up 9 yards on 3rd and 7, the Brees hit a diving Colston in traffic for 20 yards on 3rd and 10 down to the Packer 5.  A flare pass to Graham closed the final five yards and the Saints were alive, down 8 before the two minute warning.  Brees was on fire at this point, and the Packers were reeling, playing not to lose.

Two runs by Stark were punctuated by clock stoppages, the Saints' final timeout then the two minute warning, and the Packers lined up 3rd and 4 and with the game on the line at the 2:00 mark.  A tough decision by Mike McCarthy here, with a first down sealing the victory.  Jonathan Vilma sniffed out an incomplete pass to the fullback Kuhn out of the backfield, and the Saints forced a punt.

Masthay aimed for the end zone and in an close and controversial play, Packers CB Jarrett Bush covered the ball at the one yard line.  But the slippery grass of Lambeau field finally worked in the Saints' favor, as Bush's momentum carried his feet onto the grass of the end zone, resulting in a touchback.

Red-hot Brees was in no-huddle full court press, firing back-to-back 10-yard and out-of-bounds passes to Sproles then Graham, then hitting Meachem wide open in the middle of the field for 18 yards to the Packer 41.  A dazzling, one-handed catch by a diving Colston picked up 23 yards to the Packer 18, though Colston got up with a visibly injured right shoulder.  With no time for a substitution, he stayed in the game, the right side of his torso limp.

Brees rolled right and fired to Sproles to the Packer nine, but in bounds, so Brees rallied the offense for a spiked ball with three seconds left in the game.  On what seemed to be the last play, Brees scrambled right again and fired into the end zone for Sproles.  Packers LB AJ Hawk, who had some very visible bad moments of the night, had his worst, diving through and over the top of the diminutive Sproles to bat the pass away.  He was flagged for the obvious pass interference, and the Saints had a single, untimed play from the one yard line, down eight points.

Brees' 419-yard, 65% completion percentage, three touchdown night aside, this game came down to one yard.  Wanting to set the tone for the season, and with the specter of a disastrous play-action 4th down attempt earlier, Payton dialed Ingram up the middle.  The Saints' interior offensive line, glittery with Pro Bowl appearances, was wiped out, taking off their feet and leapt over. Ingram barely got back to the line, and the game was over.  There would be no two-point conversion for the tie and overtime.

Easily the star of the game for the Saints was Sproles, who had 250 all-purpose yards and enough dazzling displays of speed to fill a highlight reel.  On defense, the Saints were beaten on the line, their revamped defensive line badly missing the suspended Will Smith.  Sedrick Ellis was the only familiar face and had a quiet nice, as did starters Turk McBride, Aubrayo Franklin and first round pick Cameron Jordan.  Frequent substitutions with Jeff Charleston, Mitch King, Shaun Rogers and Junior Galette were all held to two tackles or fewer.

The four-man defensive tackle rotation of Ellis, Franklin, Rogers and King combined for two tackles and three assisted tackles, a poor showing, albeit against the Super Bowl XLV-winning line of the Packers.

It was the first season opener in league history where both quarterbacks threw for 300+ yards, three scored and no interceptions.

The Saints are now 1-2 in Thursday night regular season premieres, losing twice to the defending Super Bowl champs.  The defending champion is now 7-0 in their regular season Thursday night home game, including the Saints' win over Minnesota last September.

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