As the dust settles from Thursday night's heart stopping Packers 42-34 win over New Orleans, looking back on the evening, there are some things that went well, and others that nearly cost Green Bay the win.
Judging a defense in Week 1 based on how they played against one of the elite offenses might not be the most accurate barometer of how they will play the rest of the season, but certainly there was room for improvement in Dom Capers' unit.
Conversely, Aaron Rodgers picked up right where he left off, and seems primed for a return engagement with the eventual AFC Champion. But there is a lot of football to be played between now and then.
Like every game, there was some good, some bad, and some ugly from the Thursday night opener.
As noted above, Aaron Rodgers was spectacular: 27-35 for 312 yards, three touchdowns, no interceptions, which calculated to a 132.1 quarterback rating. Rodgers spread the ball around to 10 different receivers and looked unstoppable. In his seventh season, the Packers signal caller appears to be destined for superstardom. "He has set that standard," coach Mike McCarthy said of Rodgers in his post-game news conference. "He commands the offense. He's off to a great start."
Rookie Randall Cobb made a pair of mistakes count for 12 points. As rookies will do sometimes, the first NFL player born in the 1990's ran the wrong route in catching his first career touchdown pass as time wound down in the first quarter. Also, despite his Packers record-breaking (and NFL record-tying) kickoff return of 108 yards in the third quarter, he still got chewed out by his coaches for not taking a knee that deep in the end zone. "Both of my touchdowns were mess-ups," Cobb admitted after the game. "Missed assignments. Fortunately, we made a play and made something happen out of them."
You may have noticed how quickly Cobb went to the ground the next time he fielded a kick behind the goal line. Cobb rates a "good" because even his mistakes are exciting. He is going to be a big-time player for the Packers in the years to come.
While the Packers defense had problems containing New Orleans quarterback Drew Brees (we'll get to that in a moment) they came up big when they needed to. Twice on 4th down deep in Packers territory, the Green Bay defense turned away one of the NFL's most potent offenses.
With 3:10 left in the 3rd quarter, after Jarius Wynn and Howard Green stuffed rookie Mark Ingram for no gain at the Green Bay 7, trailing 35-27, Saints coach Sean Payton decided to go for the touchdown. Under pressure from Wynn and flushed left by Clay Matthews, Brees' pass to running back Pierre Thomas was short, and the Packers took over on downs.
The final play of the game, from the Packers perspective, obviously was good. What led to a necessary goal-line stand was not, but when it mattered, the Packers defensive line came up huge.
In what is known as their 4-4 "hippo" package, the Packers swarmed and attacked the line of scrimmage. First to make contact with Mark Ingram, the 2009 Heisman Trophy winner from Alabama, was linebacker Clay Matthews. He was then joined by teammates Charles Woodson and Morgan Burnett pinching from the side. Linebacker Desmond Bishop got leverage when B.J. Raji and Jarius Wynn pushed back Ingram's blockers, and it was game over.
The Packers defense was picked apart by Brees, an elite quarterback in his own right. Brees eluded pressure from the Packers pass rush all night. Yes, he was sacked three times (Erik Walden and Jarius Wynn each had a sack, while Jarrett Bush and A.J. Hawk combined for one) but for the most part, Brees was able to have his way with a defense that frustrated Pro Bowl-caliber quarterbacks Matt Ryan, Ben Roethlisberger, Eli Manning, and Michael Vick last season.
Brees was 32-49 for a gaudy 419 yards, three touchdowns, and no interceptions, despite wide receiver Lance Moore's absence. All evening long Brees was able to find his other favorite targets, Devery Henderson and Marques Colston. Darren Sproles had a huge game, catching 7 balls out of the backfield for 75 yards. Brees always seemed to know when there was a mismatch, picking on Tramon Williams in single coverage when he found Robert Meachem over the middle for New Orleans' first score of the night.
Likewise, with the Saints trailing by 8 and 1:08 left to play, Brees methodically marched his team 79 yards to the Packers 1. First, Brees found Sproles for a 10 yard gain. On the next play, tight end Jimmy Graham was on the receiving end of an 11-yard gain. Then, in succession, Brees found Meachem over the middle for a gain of 18 yards, Colston over the middle for another 23 yards, and Sproles on a screen pass for 9 yards. In the span of five plays in :50, Brees was 5-5 for 71 yards. When it counted most, right up until the final play, the Packers defense got gashed. That was troubling.
On special teams, Sproles was devastating to the Green Bay coverage unit, returning two punts for 98 yards, including one that went for a 72-yard touchdown. Sproles also returned two kicks for 76 yards. Sproles may be one of the best return men in football, but that is an unacceptable performance by Shawn Slocum's coverage units.
Charles Woodson will certainly be hearing from the NFL office about his sucker-punch to the gut of Saints tight end David Thomas in the third quarter. As was pointed out on the NBC broadcast by analyst Cris Collinsworth as well as former NFL director of officiating Mike Pereira via Twitter, Woodson should have been ejected. If he had been, the Packers would have been hurting deeply at the position after Tramon Williams had to leave the game with a shoulder injury. Remember, it was Woodson who helped finish off Ingram in the game's final play. He's been in the NFL long enough to know not to lose his cool like that.
Where was James Jones all night? He was only targeted once, catching the pass for a 1-yard gain. Jones goes into the "ugly" category because that's what the situation could get in the Packers locker room if he doesn't see more action. Don't be too surprised if Ted Thompson starts to shop around his fifth-year receiver.
Finally, the botched attempt at pageantry at the beginning of the game. The NFL took the time and effort to fly in the likes of NFL alumni Eddie George, Steve Bartkowski, Ted Hendricks, John Randle, and Andre Reed, among others, to hold the banners of their respective former teams. Bart Starr was to carry the flag of the Packers, but every time he started to walk with the Packers flag down towards the field in between the other legends he was stopped by a production crew member. The other former players were never introduced, and were left just standing there with nothing to do but look confused. For a league that orchestrates everything down to the last second, this element of the pregame was extremely poorly executed.
All in all, the Packers offense was outstanding, their defense was good enough, and their special teams were confused. They will get the weekend off before preparing for their next opponent, the Carolina Panthers, who were a league-worst 2-14 in 2010.
Doug Russell has been covering Milwaukee and Wisconsin sports for over 20 years on radio, television, magazines, and now at OnMilwaukee.com.
Over the course of his career, the Edward R. Murrow Award winner and Emmy nominee has covered the Packers in Super Bowls XXXI, XXXII and XLV, traveled to Pasadena with the Badgers for Rose Bowls, been to the Final Four with Marquette, and saw first-hand the entire Brewers playoff runs in 2008 and 2011. Doug has also covered The Masters, several PGA Championships, MLB All-Star Games, and Kentucky Derbys; the Davis Cup, the U.S. Open, and the Sugar Bowl, along with NCAA football and basketball conference championships, and for that matter just about anything else that involves a field (or court, or rink) of play.
Doug was a sports reporter and host at WTMJ-AM radio from 1996-2000, before taking his radio skills to national syndication at Sporting News Radio from 2000-2007. From 2007-2011, he hosted his own morning radio sports show back here in Milwaukee, before returning to the national scene at Yahoo! Sports Radio last July. Doug's written work has also been featured in The Sporting News, Milwaukee Magazine, Inside Wisconsin Sports, and Brewers GameDay.
Doug and his wife, Erika, split their time between their residences in Pewaukee and Houston, TX.