September 30, 2012

0-4: Saints Lose Another Thriller in Lambeau

The 0-3 Saints went into Lambeau and gave the 1-2 Packers the game of their life, keeping up with the Packers in a fast-paced first half and using two third quarter turnovers to take a lead.  But Garrett Hartley missed a 48-yard penalty after hitting a 43-yarder that was nullified by penalty, and the Saints lost 28-27 following an exciting nail-biter in Green Bay.

The Packers, who like the Saints have lofty standards for offense that they haven't lived up to, hadn't scored in the first quarter all season before that play.  The Saints defense proved to be the salve for the Packers' hurts, allowing Rodgers three touchdown passes in the first half - matching his number of touchdown passes in the first three games.  Similarly, the Packers defense proved to be just the thing Brees needed to jumpstart the Saints' offense, as Brees and Rodgers lit up the Lambeau Field for 765 yards passing.

Saints WR Marques Colston was dominant on the day, hauling in 153 of Brees' 446 yards passing.  Colston's first quarter touchdown moved him to second place on the team's all-time receiving touchdowns list and one behind WR Joe Horn, who owns the team record with 50.

Rodgers opened scoring with a scrambling strike to WR James Jones in the end zone, who beat SLB Scott Shanle in coverage.  Rodgers scrambled out of the collapsed pocket and threw a perfect strike to Jones in the end zone.

Brees completed his first eight passes and tied the score at 7 with a touchdown pass to a leaping Marques Colston, who avoided a potential offensive pass interference call on the catch which drew loud boos from the Lambeau crowd.   The defender fell down with Colston's arm on his back, but the back judge was in front of the defender and couldn't have seen Colston's arm.  It was especially bitter since the Packers lost a game in Seattle on Monday night because of a botched offensive pass interference and interception-ruled-touchdown, the play that ended the NFL's lockout of its officials.

Rodgers threw his second touchdown pass early in the second quarter, sitting comfortably in the pocket for seven seconds, then found WR Greg Jennings in front of rookie Corey White and free safety Malcolm Jenkins in the end zone from nine yards out.  SS Roman Harper tipped that pass but Jennings adjusted and caught the pass in traffic.

After a Saints punt, the Packers faked a punt at their own 17 yard line, running up the middle with punt protector FB John Kuhn, who picked up five yards on fourth and inches.  It was an incredibly gutsy call that paid off for Packers HC Mike McCarthy, a former offensive coordinator in the Jim Haslett era. Penalties for defensive holding by Patrick Robinson and a facemask on Malcolm Jenkins fueled that Packers drive that ended with a 14-yard strike to WR James Jones, who beat CB Jabari Greer to the end zone for a 21-7 lead with 4:53 left in the half.  That drive was demoralizing for the Saints, who were beaten by the Packers special teams, Rodgers' arm and RB Cedric Benson's run game on a 13-play, 92-yard drive.

Brees led the Saints on a great momentum-stealing drive to end the first half, taking over with 4:50 left in the half at his own 20 and guiding the Saints on a 12-play drive that featured two 3rd and 1 conversions on pass completions to Lance Moore and Jimmy Graham.  Brees hit 9 of 11 passes on the drive with connections to to Colston, Henderson, Sproles, Moore and Graham, the last a six-yard dump off to Sproles.  Sproles caught, turned, ran and leapt into the end zone with :27 left in the half to make the halftime score 21-14 in favor of the Packers.

Brees showed uncharacteristic inaccuracy on the first two passes of the second half, nearly intercepted on the first by Charles Woodson and throwing behind Moore and his coverage on second down.  On third down, with Graham wide open, Brees threw behind and low to Graham, who put the ball on his hip as he fell.  Officials ruled the pass a completion for a first down, but McCarthy challenged.  After a lengthy replay review, officials ruled that it was a catch, and McCarthy was left down a timeout, out of challenges and dumbfounded on the sideline.

That catch was a critical moment in a crucial drive for the Saints.  The Saints took over at their own 39 with a fresh set of downs and Brees got back into a rhythm, two plays later he found Colston wide open on a deep cross and a 26-yard gain to the Packer 34. Three plays later on 3rd and 6, Brees hit Lance Moore at the sideline in tight coverage for a first down at the Packer 11.  But the drive would stall at the Packer 3 and the Saints appeared to settle for a field goal.

Hartley booted a short field goal as whistles blew and a fight broke out with flags thrown, with placeholder Chase Daniel immediately celebrating a Saints first down.  The Packers had 13 men on the field - an immediate penalty, but after the play the Packers were hit for unnecessary roughness, giving the Saints a first down inside the two yard line.  Grubbs appeared to shove BJ Raji, but Raji was flagged for some action in the pile and not Grubbs.  While standing, Raji had kicked, kneed and headslapped Saints LS Justin Drescher, and refs wisely flagged him and not Grubbs, who came to Drescher's defense.

But the Saints couldn't punch it in.  Hartley got the short field goal anyway with 9:43 left in the third quarter, but the damage was done - the Saints hadn't tied the game with first and goal inside the two yard line.

Rodgers moved the Packers back down the field by hitting easy, open receivers without any pass rush to worry about.  On 3rd and 3 from the Saint 4, Rodgers bootlegged right was harassed by FS Malcolm Jenkins, who put a hand into Rodgers' facemask.  Rodgers eventually threw incomplete, but a personal foul facemask gave the Packers a new set of downs at the Saint 2.  The Packers called their second timeout as Rodgers needed medical attention for an apparent right eye injury while backup QB Graham Harrell warmed up.

On the next play, with backup quarterback Harrell in, Saints DT Brodrick Bunkley pushed center Jeff Saturday and right guard Josh Sitton backwards, who tripped Harrell therefore fumbled the runningback handoff.  The Saints pounced on the pile and after a frenzied few minutes, refs unstacked the pile and awarded the ball to New Orleans at the Saint 7 yard line.

The Saints had killed a long Packer touchdown drive a strange series of consequences, and as the Saints took over, Rodgers was shown throwing and unaffected on the sidelines.  Brees converted a 3rd and 5 with a great strike to Moore for seven yards, then on the next play Brees unleashed the biggest play of the Saints' season.

With plenty of time to scan the field after play action held the defense, Brees sat in the pocket as WR Joe Morgan ran right past CB Sam Shields down the left sideline.  Brees launched a deep ball to Morgan, who had to hesitate to make the catch, then outrun and eventually outmuscle CB Tramon Williams into the end zone.  Morgan's huge touchdown catch and run was only his second NFL reception, and a 80-yard score at that.  The Saints had their first lead of the game with 3:49 to go in the third quarter, 24-21.

Following the touchdown, Rodgers came back into the game but CB Patrick Robinson stopped the driving Packers with his first interception of the year on a pass right the right sideline. The Saints, now with all the momentum, took over at their own 34 with 2:35 left in the third.

After picking up a first down with a great catch and run FB Jed Collins, Brees was sacked by LB Clay Matthews on 2nd and 8 to forced 3rd and 17.  Brees picked the lock on the Packers secondary again, dropping a ball into quadruple coverage for Colston, who made the catch up at the Packer 38 near the end of the third quarter, a gain of 23.

Three plays later after a busted-up screen, the Saints faced 3rd and 14.  So Brees found Colston again running down the seam for a huge gain up to the Packer 15, a gain of 27.  That pass put Brees over 400 yards passing with 14 minutes to go in the game.

Three plays later on 3rd and 4, Brees threw low for Henderson, who slid and dropped the pass at the Packer three yard line.  Hartley hit the 27-yard field goal for a six point lead, but the Saints offense had been forced a second time to settle for a short field goal in a game against one of the NFL's best quarterbacks in Aaron Rodgers.

Rodgers faced a third and one and picked it up with his legs, a naked bootleg picked up 10 yards as he outran CB Jabari Greer to the sideline.  Greer had the contain but bit on the play action to Benson.  The Saints forced 3rd and 7 at their own 44, then forced an incompletion to Rodgers, whose pass hit both Randall Cobb and Donald Driver in the hands but fell incomplete.  The Saints had forced the Packers' second punt with 10:46 left in the game, and took over at their own 9.

Two Brees passes forced 3rd and 10 from the Saint 9, the second when Packers LB DJ Smith and CB Tramon Williams ran into eachother going for an easy deflected Brees interception, which fell to the ground harmlessly.  The Saints were very lucky there, but Brees couldn't make the Packers pay, throwing to incomplete to Jimmy Graham, who may have buttonhooked in the wrong direction.

The Packers drove back down and regained the lead when Nelson caught a quick slant between Robinson and Corey White.  Nelson pushed his way into the end zone.  The Saints' six point lead predictably didn't hold, and the Packers took a 28-27 lead with 7:00 to go in the game.

Out of challenges, the Packers fell victim to a blown call.  Sproles definitely fumbled the ensuing kickoff at the Saint 30 but officials ruled him down by contact.  But having spent his two challenges already, McCarthy could do nothing but argue at head umpire Jeff Triplette.  The Lambeau fans booed loudly as the Saints took over at their own 31.   There was a scrum after the next play, a nine yard run up the middle by Sproles.

Ingram picked up the one yard for the first down, but Brees was sacked for a loss of seven on the next play. Cooly, Brees hit diving Colston over the middle for 15 yards to set up 3rd and short.  Brees threw to Sproles over the middle, who was hit immediately by DJ Smith to break up the pass.  The Saints kept the offense on the field for 4th and 2 with 4:41 left in the game and appeared to be called for delay of game.  The officials may not have reset the play clock, but then picked up the flag and awarded the Saints a timeout.  

With Packers CB Casey Heyward hanging all over him, WR Lance Moore made the catch for a six yard gain.  Heyward clearly hooked Moore's left arm, but the Saints completed the pass anyway.   After an incomplete pass to Moore on first down, a third straight pass to Moore picked up 14 yards against Heyward, putting the Saints at the Packer 31 with 3:54 left.

The Saints faced 3rd and 4 three plays later, and Sproles dropped a first down completion at the sideline.  Hartley came on again, and boomed a 43-yard field goal to regain the lead, but a holding penalty on TE David Thomas was a very questionable makeup call by the refs.  Hartley's 53-yard field goal attempt was blown dead when the the Packers were called offsides, making it a 48-yard try.  Hartley's kicked hooked outside the right upright, no good.

Down by one, the Saints had one timeout, and the Packers had the ball with 2:49 left.  Rodgers hit James Jones against Jabari Greer on 3rd and 3, and the game was over.

Considering their extreme lack of depth at linebacker this game, defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo moved strong safety Roman Harper to linebacker in many situations.

Brees tied the NFL record for consecutive games with a touchdown pass at 47 straight games, and will try to break Johnny Unitas' 52-year old record next week at home against his old team, the San Diego Chargers.  Unitas set that record in 1960.

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