The four times that Mike McCarthy has faced a Sean Payton offense since they both started head coaching in 2006, the Packers have given up 34, 51, 34, and 44 points. In one of those games, Aaron Rodgers and Randall Cobb managed to outscore the New Orleans Saints 42-34, but the other three were decisive losses, two of them by more than 20 points.
In the 10 seasons that Rodgers has been the starter, he has lost by more than 20 points only five times total. Twice it was at the hands of Drew Brees and the scheme of Sean Payton.
Will Brett Hundley be able to do any better against this quarterback and head coach?
SCOUTING THE SAINTS
This offense has led the league in yards gained in two of the last three seasons, while placing second the other year—and yet they have finished out of the playoffs in all of those campaigns, with identical 7-9 records. Knowing that, you won’t be surprised to learn that the defense—during that same span‚finished fifth-to-last, second-to-last, and second-to-last in yards allowed.
This year the offense is still good, and the defense might be better. Here are the names and jersey numbers of players to watch for on Sunday:
#9 Drew Brees still holds the career Big Ten records for passes, passes completed, passing yards, and passing touchdowns. Coming out of Purdue way back in 2001, however, every NFL team passed on him in the first round because he is short (six-foot even), slow (more than a tenth of second slower than Rodgers, who also dropped in the 2005 draft because of speed concerns), and his arm strength is average. Now that the year is 2017, you can add “old” to that list.
When I watch tape of Brees, I see what the scouts saw 16 years ago. He’s fidgety in the pocket, he leans his head back hoping to give his low eyes a slighter better angle downfield over the taller rushers and blockers, and then he releases the ball like a goblin on tippy toes. It’s never pretty, and on top of that he makes his share of bad decisions, averaging about an interception per game throughout his long career.
And yet, when you check the scoreboard or the stat sheet, you can’t argue with the results. He’s won 140 games including a Super Bowl, and if he plays ’til he’s 40 at this pace, he will retire as the NFL leader in passing yards and TDs (he’s currently third on both lists).
True to Payton’s complicated spread scheme, the ball moves all over the field. Six players have at least 10 catches this season through five games—both running backs, a tight end, and three wide receivers.
Brees’ favorite target this year and last year, by a wide margin, is #13 Michael Thomas. The 2nd-year, 2nd-rounder has size (6’3”, 212) but not speed (his 4.56 40 time exactly matches our Davante Adams’). Yet thanks to Payton’s creative calls he is somehow always open.
It only cost the Saints $3 million guaranteed to lure #19 Ted Ginn, Jr. away from Carolina this off-season. The 10-year veteran is on his 6th contract, none for big money. Ginn has never put it all together, but he has also never lost his blazing speed. He usually lines up in the slot, but is often in pre-snap motion and is always a threat to take a pitch around the end. He also returns punts.
They had to dangle six times as much ($18 million guaranteed) to get #82 Coby Fleener away from the Colts two years ago. The 6’6″, 251-pound tight end actually runs faster (4.51) than all the wide receivers but Ginn, and is not a threat to block. His sole function is to be a big, tall slot receiver down the seams. When Payton decided that the weakness of the Detroit Lions defense was against runs, not passes, he played his backup tight ends more than the expensive starter.
A lot more. According to Bob McGinn, “Fleener…played just 18 snaps Sunday against Detroit compared to [#89 Josh] Hill‘s 48 and [#84 Michael] Hoomanawanui‘s 41.” It worked. The Saints gained 193 yards on the ground with just 186 in the air while scoring 52 points (albeit only 31 of them on offense).
All but four of those rushing yards were earned by the hard-charging tandem of #22 Mark Ingram and #41 Alvin Kamara. Ingram, like Ginn, was overdrafted many years ago but has hung around long enough to now be under-appreciated. Last week Ingram demonstrated both his toughness for the hard yard as well as his explosiveness.
Kamara was the 67th overall draft pick this spring, and his versatility out of the backfield is exactly what an evil genius like Sean Payton needs to keep defenses guessing. Against the Dolphins in London, Kamara was the team’s leading receiver, catching all 10 passes thrown his way. Two weeks later he rushed 10 times for 75 yards, showing both shiftiness and force. He set up the Saints’ final offensive TD by running first inside for 12 yards then outside for 13—including a dramatic hurdling of the safety—on consecutive plays.
Ahead of Brees and the backs are five good lineman—including two recent first-round picks and two newly acquired, expensive free agents. The best of the bunch, though, is probably the left tackle #72 Teron Amstead, who was merely a third-round draft pick five years ago but is now earning $13 million per year. On the other side is right tackle #71 Ryan Ramczyk, the last pick of this spring’s first round and a native of Stevens Point who made the transfer from D3 in Point to D1 in Madison and now is an NFL starter.
The Saints’ defensive signal caller, MLB #53 A.J. Klein, is also from a small town in northern Wisconsin. Back in high school he was a two-sport star for the Kimberly Papermakers. (Really, the Packers should be called the Papermakers, too, given the relative strengths of the meatpacking vs. papermaking industries in the lower Fox Valley.) Klein went to Iowa State before backing up Luke Kuechly in Carolina for four years. The Saints liked what they saw when Kuechly was hurt last year, so they gave Klein almost $10 million guaranteed to make the move.
287-pound #94 Cameron Jordan usually squares up at left end to bull rush (although the sack against Cam Newton occurred when he confused the Panthers by lining up on the right side) and he’s been on a tear lately, with four sacks and three turnover plays in the last three games. Overall, he fits into that same category as Ginn and Ingram—a long ago 1st round pick (2011) on the journey from overdrafted to underrated. Before this year started, he had 46.5 sacks in six full seasons.
The right end, 261-pound #57 Alex Okafor, has a linebacker number because that’s what he used to be when he played in the Cardinals’ 3-4 scheme. He’s a little too big to be a 3-4 outside backer and a lot too small to be a 4-3 end. That’s why he signed for just $1 million guaranteed this offseason.
On the inside, third-year third-rounder #95 Tyeler Davison was the fourth best tackle in the league last week according to Pro Football Focus, and second-year first-rounder #98 Sheldon Rankins is now starting next to him. Whoever is replacing Lane Taylor on Sunday will have a full plate of young, fast, highly-drafted, 300-plus-pound men running stunts, garnished with lots of exotic linebacker and safety blitzes.
Other than the 11th overall draft pick this spring, #23 Marshon Lattimore, who appears to be a legit starter if not a shutdown island, the Saints are pretty desperate at cornerback. After benching some other options, it now looks like undrafted #20 Ken Crawley is the starting left corner, and two safeties, #32 Kenny Vaccaro and #25 Rafael Bush, are playing nickel and dime slot back. The actual starting safeties, #43 Marcus Williams deep and #48 Vonn Bell in the box, were both drafted in the second round the last two years, and neither one looks special yet.
HOW THE PACKERS MATCH UP
This is normally the part of the column where I say Aaron Rodgers can definitely take advantage of the [insert NFL team nickname]’s secondary. Well, Sam Bradford, Tom Brady, and Matthew Stafford have already picked apart this Saints pass defense (only Cam Newton and Jay Cutler couldn’t). Now that Mr. Rodgers will be busy having objects surgically inserted into his collar bone, all eyes will turn to our third-year, fifth-round draft pick, the guy who stayed in college one year too long.
Hundley did not look good last week, but it was against the best secondary in the league with three backup lineman trying—and failing—to protect him from a fierce four-man rush. Not just backups, but three guys—Justin McCray, Lucas Patrick, and Ulrick John—who have so far spent the majority of their post-college careers not on NFL 53-man rosters. In other words, all three have been available at no cost to all 32 teams for months if not years, and nobody wanted them until the injury-stricken Packers got desperate.
It looks like Lane Taylor is out for sure this week, and the smart medical move would be to let our $12 million-per-year left tackle’s hamstring fully heal through this week and then the bye week, so at least two of those three nobodies will probably be back out there (although John was so bad that Adam Pankey might get a shot this time).
The last time the line was this depleted before kickoff was three weeks ago against Chicago, and McCarthy responded by calling a bunch of run plays so that his fresh-faced big uglies could be the hunters instead of the prey. It worked, and Tom Silverstein is suggesting they do the same thing again. It should also help them that this week is—like the Chicago game—at friendly Lambeau Field, meaning they should have some peace and quiet to hear the snap count—unless the same idiots who did the wave during the opening game while our offense was on the field show up again. (The fact that resale ticket prices are now dropping could be good news in this regard, since it won’t just be entitled and held wealth hogging the seats.)
When your own fans do The Wave when you’re on offense… pic.twitter.com/12615JJoew
— Aaron Nagler (@AaronNagler) September 11, 2017
Even though the “Can Mike McCarthy prove he’s a ‘highly successful coach’ by scoring points with Brett Hundley?” storyline is dominating most thoughts going into Sunday, I actually think the “Can Mike McCarthy and Dom Capers hold a Sean Payton offense to less than 34 points for the first time ever?” plot on the other side of the ball will be more fascinating to watch unfold.
Our best corner Kevin King is back from his concussion already, but our best safety Morgan Burnett is almost certainly out for awhile with a nasty-looking hamstring limp, and Quinten Rollins is no longer on the active roster, while Davon House and Damarious Randall were both limited participants so far in practice this week with nagging soft tissue injuries.
Still, I expect Dom Capers to be ready on Sunday. King and Josh Hawkins are both really fast, and—if Dom has to—he will play all four of his remaining safeties in the dime package, just like Sean Payton is doing. If Nick Perry and Clay Matthews do their damn jobs and pinch the pocket, Brees will rush throws and make bad decisions.
Blake Martinez and Josh Jones will have their hands full trying to corral these running backs, but if Mike Daniels and Kenny Clark (who was the best interior lineman in the league last week according to the PFF rankers) can keep the blockers off the second level, then our nitro backers have proven they will make the tackle.
Will our schemes be flexible enough to not be surprised when Kamara runs quick routes out of the backfield, or Ginn and Thomas catch bubble screens, or Fleener sits in a zone? If history is any guide, Payton is too clever for Capers, but history is behind us, and Sunday noon is still in the future.
THE FLOODS ALREADY AND THE FLOODS TO COME
When the New Orleans Saints did win that Super Bowl after the 2009 season, it was celebrated nationally as a civic balm for the wound of Hurricane Katrina, which hit in August 2005.
Such myth talk is ridiculous. The only way football helped with the flood was by providing a large place of shelter for the displaced, and even there football failed its fans.
It wasn’t just football that failed New Orleans in 2005, of course. And it wasn’t the first time, by any means, that the U.S. government misunderstood water and then unnecessarily harmed black people as if for sport.
On April 15, 1927 an inch of rain fell per hour on New Orleans for the better part of a day. This was after months of hard rain upstream had already killed hundreds and displaced almost a million. The bankers in town panicked and decided to preemptively dynamite some levies and flood two black parishes in order to save the white part of town. It turns out this was, from an engineering perspective, completely gratuitous. The city was under no threat from upstream flooding, and—to this day, more than 90 years later—the mighty Mississippi River has still never flooded New Orleans. Almost everywhere else in Louisiana and Mississippi and even western Tennessee and eastern Arkansas is constantly under such internal threat, but New Orleans the city is vulnerable to storm surges from the sea, not to rising river banks.
Then, as now, natural disasters have a way of revealing and deepening social inequality. Just as Trump was more concerned with past Wall Street debt than current human suffering in Puerto Rico, the debt-holding class of New Orleans in 1927 also viewed its darker neighbors as expendable.
It wasn’t just the dynamiting of the levies in April 1927 that reinforced such a caste system. Three months later, upriver in Greenville on July 7, a white policeman murdered a black man, James Gooden, on the pretense that he wouldn’t get into a work truck to help buttress a new levee. In fact, Gooden had been working on the levee all night, and had just arrived home to rest. This story is told on pages 332-5 of John M. Barry’s remarkable book, Rising Tide, and retold in a 1997 New York Times review.
A local white plantation owner, Will Percy, tried to pacify his black neighbors by saying, “I look into your faces and see anger and hatred…I have struggled…to help you Negroes. Every white man in town has done the same thing…During all this time you Negroes did nothing, nothing for yourselves or for us…I am not the murderer. That foolish young policeman is not the murderer. The murderer is you! Your hands are dripping with blood. Look into each other’s face and see the shame and fear God set on them. Down on your knees, murderers, and beg your God.”
In response to this speech, the author John Barry concludes, “The bond between the Percys and the blacks was broken. The Delta, the land that had once promised so much to the blacks, had become, entirely and finally, the land where the blues began. The black audience did get down on its knees. But what they prayed for Will did not know.”
Over 84,000 people recently attended the 2017 Milwaukee Film Festival, and they selected as its best film The Blood Is At The Doorstep, which profiled Dontre Hamilton’s mother, Maria, and his brothers, Nate and Dameion, during their grieving and their activism after a Milwaukee police officer fatally shot Dontre, who had been taking an afternoon nap, 14 times.
Is Milwaukee-native Colin Kaepernick a better quarterback than our current backup Joe Callahan? By every measure, of course. Was Ted Thompson’s decision to stick with Joe this week a political decision made partly in fear of his bosses, the people of Wisconsin? Probably.
If we, as Packer fans and United States citizens, want a better world and a better football team, then we better start acting like it, and we better start voting like it.
Listen below to the latest episode of our PackerVerse radio show on FM 104.1 in Riverwest, Wisconsin. Wildcat Mark and Bulldog Kathy visited the Center Street studios this week, joined on the phone lines by Bob and Jeff, Double G, Sonny, Curious Over the River, Jim From the South Side, and KB in Madtown.