Rodgers in midseason form; Cobb looks like the real deal


Some observations from the Green Bay Packers' 42-34 win Thursday night over the New Orleans Saints:

» Aaron Rodgers is the best quarterback in the game. It is crazy to make that statement after only one game, but the seventh-year pro has picked up where he left off following a sensational postseason run. Rodgers connected on 27 of 35 passes for 312 yards with three touchdowns and no interceptions. His superb efficiency was not only reflected in his spectacular individual performance, but also in the Packers scoring touchdowns on four of their first five possessions.

Rodgers distributed the ball to nine different receivers, and meticulously worked the ball downfield on an assortment of precise short-to-intermediate throws. He was nearly flawless from the pocket despite facing an aggressive defense intent on sending five or six rushers on most downs. He quickly connected with the hot route against the blitz or delivered a pinpoint strike to one of his talented receivers on a quick hitch or option route against isolated coverage. He also tossed a few back-shoulder fades to take advantage of the occasional press coverage used by Saints defenders on the outside. Rodgers' anticipation and timing was the key in a game that was ultimately decided by the passer with the hottest hand.

» Randall Cobb is better than advertised. The buzz coming from Packers training camp had been all about Cobb's explosiveness and big-play potential. He lived up to the hype in his debut performance against the Saints, finishing the night with two receptions for 35 yards, including a 32-yard score. Oh, and that 108-yard kick return touchdown.

Both plays showcased the speed, acceleration and running skills that made him a coveted prospect in the draft following a stellar career as a multi-purpose playmaker at Kentucky. The kickoff return, in particular, showed Cobb's exceptional balance, agility and burst with the ball in his hands. He eluded at least four defenders on an assortment of hard cuts and spin moves, which left the Saints' kick coverage team out of position and unable to corral the rookie in the open field. With Cobb already flashing the potential to emerge as a big-play threat, the Packers' offense has become even scarier for opponents.

» Darren Sproles will be a difference maker in New Orleans. While the diminutive all-purpose back has shown flashes of being a game changer throughout his career, his skills will flourish as an explosive weapon in Sean Payton's system. Sproles provided a glimpse of his potential within the scheme by tallying 82 yards from scrimmage on nine touches against the Packers. Acting as a change of pace option in the backfield, he was used primarily in the passing game to take advantage of his superior speed and quickness against the Packers' linebackers. He worked A.J. Hawk repeatedly on underneath routes, including a 36-yard catch-and-run on a quick seam pattern against the blitz. His ability to win isolated matchups in the middle of the field gives Drew Brees an intriguing option to target against pressure.

Sproles also added some juice to the Saints' kicking game by breaking off a pair of big returns, including a 72-yard punt return touchdown. His combination of speed and elusiveness is dangerous in the open field, and he shows a knack for finding the soft spot in coverage. His ability to provide game-changing returns will provide an explosive Saints offense with prime scoring opportunities due to short fields.

» Saints' power formations come up short in the red zone. For all of the Saints' production as one of the league's most explosive offenses, it was their inability to convert a pair of scoring opportunities inside the 10-yard line that undermined their chances of winning against the Packers.

On a fourth-and-inches at the Packers' 7 with a little more than three minutes remaining in the third quarter, the Saints were unable to pick up a critical first down on a play-action pass from a run-heavy set. The Saints broke the huddle in a tight I-formation with 22 personnel on the field. The team flipped tight end David Thomas to the right to form a tight wing set before motioning Jimmy Graham back to the left to create a stacked slot formation behind Robert Meachem. Brees faked a power to that side before looking for fullback Jed Collins in the flat with Graham in the back corner on a post route. While the execution of the motion and fake was designed to fool a Packers' defense that presumably was playing man-to-man in the situation, Dom Capers' decision to use zone coverage on the down foiled the plan. As a result, Brees was unable to identify an open receiver and was pressured into an incomplete pass at the feet of Pierre Thomas.

On the final play of the game, the Saints once again lined up in a power formation out of their jumbo package (two backs, three tight ends with tackle Charles Brown used as the third tight end) with a tight wing on the right. Brees handed the ball to Mark Ingram on a power with guard Carl Hicks executing a short pull to lead the rookie into the hole. The clever play design didn't work because of the tremendous amount of penetration from the Packers' defensive line out of their 6-2 alignment.

B.J. Raji and Ryan Pickett blew their assigned blockers off the ball, which prevented Ingram from getting a clean running start into the hole. The leaping efforts of Desmond Bishop and Hawk eliminated Ingram's opportunity to vault over the top and the lack of space resulted in no gain on the game's final play.

Sean Payton loves to uses a wide array of formations to create mismatches at the point of attack, but his utilization of a run-heavy formation on a pair of critical plays produced nothing through the ground or air when the Saints needed it the most.



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