Pack In a Hurry to Win Opener vs. Saints

We've been waiting eight months for this. Since watching the Pack climb to the top of the NFL mountain in February, and surviving an offseason where everyone was locked out, we finally get to welcome back the defending champs Thursday night at Lambeau against the dangerous Saints.

Last time we saw the Saints, they were making Marshawn Lynch look like Barry Sanders, while surrendering 41 points to the mediocre Seahawks in the playoffs.

And now they meet, the past two Super Bowl champs, to kick off the 2011 season. This is the eighth year the NFL has opened on a Thursday night and in the previous seven, the defending champs have won at home. But there is reason for concern: whenever there is a lot of pomp and circumstance, banners being raised, etc, I always worry about a team getting caught up in all the hype. I was at the old Chicago Stadium a couple of times for season openers, and twice I saw the Bulls come up short, despite all the excitement in the building.

The Packers catch a break playing the Saints in Week 1. This is a team that will get better as the season goes along, with a completely re-made front seven defensively. Their best lineman, Will Smith, is suspended for the opener as part of the Starcaps case. They cut their other end, Alex Brown, and will go with first round pick Cameron Jordan from day one. The Saints brought in Shaun Rogers and Abrayo Franklin on the D-line--all of these guys are playing together in Gregg Williams' aggressive defense for the first time and the Pack will do all it can to confuse them and cause uncertainty.

Offensively, the Saints should be much more balanced this season. The additions of rookie Mark Ingram and speedy Darren Sproles (much more dangerous than Reggie Bush) joins holdover Pierre Thomas to comprise a formidable backfield. Expect them to test the Pack's front seven right off the bat.

The passing game remains one of the NFL's best, but they will be without their second best receiver, Lance Moore, who's out with a groin injury. Marques Colston has aching knees and hasn't gotten much work in the preseason--he may be a few weeks away from hitting his stride. WRs Devery Henderson and Robert Meacham will get a lot of work on Thursday night. Also, expect Drew Brees to look early and often for tight end Jimmy Graham, the former basketball player who came on strong late last season and was a favorite target in the preseason.

If the game comes down to a field goal, the Saints may also be in trouble. Kicker Garrett Hartley is out with a hip injury, so the team signed John Kasay who I think is an AARP member.

As for the Packers, there is concern along the offensive line. Chad Clifton looked every bit like the oldest left tackle in the preseason and he needs to find a rhythm with new left guard TJ Lang. The Saints don't present a fearsome pass rusher so this unit will have a couple of weeks to get its act together, before they face Julius Peppers and the Bears.

The Packers are saying that Ryan Grant and James Starks will share carries. They may start out that way, but James Starks will take over as the team's main ballcarrier as the season goes on. The Pack will test that run defense early.

We saw the Pack use the no huddle very effectively in the preseason and you can expect them to pick their spots to trot it out in each game. Wouldn't shock me to see them use it multiple times Thursday night, especially if the offense starts sluggishly, as they did during the preseason.

Defensively, we'll keep an eye on the line, to see if Mike Neal can play. If not, Jarius Wynn and CJ Wilson will rotate in. When the Pack let Cullen Jenkins go and didn't get help at that position, it created a possible weakness up front.

Expect Dom Capers to throw the kitchen sink at Drew Brees. The Pack has been game planning for weeks for this game and you can bet they have a few surprises in store for the Saints. With Frank Zombo and Vic So'oto out with injuries, Erik Walden will get a ton of snaps and show that he is up to the job.

Ultimately, the biggest difference between the two teams is defense. The Saints' D will be stronger later in the season, but for now the Pack's offense should be able to move the ball up and down the field. After a slow start, the Packers will kick it in gear and take care of business. Call it Pack 27 Saints 21.

I'll be at Lambeau Thursday night and will post a blog before kickoff, at halftime and then after the game. I'll tweet throughout the game and watch for my first podcast on Friday morning. I'll read your blog comments and questions and review the game, the morning after every Packer game this season.


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