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Sharper: Packers still hold matchup advantage with Saints

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Darren Sharper patrolled the secondary in New Orleans and Green Bay and has unique insight on those teams.

After witnessing the Saints' 31-17 shellacking of the penalty-ridden Lions Sunday night, a certain question started creeping in the darker corners of my football mind.

Can the Saints take the Packers down at Lambeau Field in the playoffs?

To get an informed opinion on this potential matchup of the past two Super Bowl champions, I asked NFL Network analyst Darren Sharper. As a former Packer and Saint, the ex-safety has a unique perspective.

"I think the Saints can beat them," Sharper said. "They just need to slow Aaron Rodgers and that offense down to a jog, as opposed to a sprint. Get up a touchdown with the offense, and hold the lead."

Now remember, the Packers held off the Saints in a 42-34 thriller in September to open the 2011 season. Could they do it again? I asked Sharper a series of questions as it related to the matchup:

Seeing that Drew Brees has played the majority of his career in the climate-controlled Superdome, can he put up big numbers in the cold at Lambeau?
"I think so. If you remember the first year they were back in the Superdome, when Brees took them to the NFC Championship up in Chicago -- 2006. He threw for over 300 yards against that defense, so he can do it."

What is the best plan of attack defensively to slow down Aaron Rodgers? If you're Saints defensive coordinator Gregg Williams, what are you doing? In other words, does he take the same risks he always does?
"You do. That is Gregg Williams' nature, to blitz. If he gives up a touchdown by blitzing, he knows that his offense will come back and get it right back. They're not afraid at all, as far as rolling the dice, to try and get after Aaron Rodgers.

"They feel as though you hit the quarterback enough times, when it comes to the fourth quarter -- if the game is still in the balance -- the quarterback will make a mistake; similar to what we did in '09 when we kept hitting Peyton Manning. We didn't get any sacks. But we kept hitting him… hitting him… hitting him. Then in the fourth quarter he made a poor decision, and next thing you know, interception and touchdown. Game over."

As a former safety, you know that when you blitz, it exposes the back end of the defense quite a bit. Do you think that is a gamble, considering how talented Green Bay's offense is?
"It is a gamble, and Aaron Rodgers has seen enough blitzes to know how to get the ball out to his playmakers. And the thing that their receivers do extremely well is run after the catch. There's a way to blitz, and modify your blitzes, so that you still can have someone back deep but still get after the quarterback.

How would you cover their receivers?
"Everyone says Greg Jennings is the best, but I like Jordy Nelson out of all of them. He's a big receiver who can get down the football field. He's very explosive and attacks the ball extremely well. Aaron Rodgers looks for him too, so that's a tough matchup. I would say that you would probably double Nelson, and double Jennings and put someone back deep. You got to watch those other guys. But, at the end of the day, someone is going to have to stand up and man up another receiver. That receiver is going to be Donald Driver or James Jones."

If I gave you a choice of playing the majority of the game in dime (six DBs) so that you can double these guys, or you can blitz the majority of the game and be locked up mostly in man-on-man, what would you do?
"You can still play nickel (five DBs), still blitz, and keep everyone doubled. There's still ways to do that. They have a system in which they can play that defense where that's the call. That's the best thing (to do). "Bring your extra defensive backs in the game. Match up with them. Don't worry about the run. If they gash you for a 20-, 30-yard run, fine. That's not what they want to do. They want to throw the ball. Match up, double their receivers, and blitz off those looks."

So a 30-yard Ryan Grant run is incidental damage?
"Exactly!"

Going the other way, what difficulty will the Packers have with the Saints?
"Trying to keep up with that Saints offense. And also, you look at the defense, the different looks they can send at you, different blitz packages that they have, they can confuse you a little bit. So you have to be on your game as a quarterback facing this defense. And that's the toughest challenge, to know that you have to score about 30 to compete with the offense, and then be able to diagnose the looks that the defense can give you."

Meanwhile, the Packers defense can get pick-sixes, but they've given up the big plays too. If you're Sean Payton, are you chomping at the bit to face them?
"Oh my God, yeah. He's licking his chops, being able to go up there and play this team, regardless of what the temperature is going to be, he knows he can put points up against this Packer defense because they've given up yardage all year long. Coach Payton has some of the best schemes that I've seen in the passing game, and for the offense it's general: put points up on the board. So that's not a worry for him. The main worry will be how do they slow down the Packer offense and maybe (force) a turnover so they can get up by a couple touchdowns."

Let me give you my theory, and I'll let you tell me I'm loony. People forget that in '09, one thing the Saints did so well was run the football. They were fifth in the league in rushing that year. My sense is that Sean Payton should scale back and run the football. Let those Pro Bowl guards get B.J. Raji's butt out of the way, and run Mark Ingram, Pierre Thomas, with a dash of Darren Sproles. Limit Aaron Rodgers' possessions and make them play a slowed-down game.
"That's the best philosophy. But, Coach Payton's nature is to throw the football. That's going to be a game in which he might have to swallow his pride and think, 'What's the best thing for this team to win?' He's still gonna put the ball up about 30 times because that's just him. He has one of the best quarterbacks in the league, so why not?

There's a big difference between 30 times and 50 times.
"Yeah, you're right. He has to keep that balance. If he can get 60 offensive plays, throw the ball 30 times and try to have at least 30 attempts rushing, that's the formula for the best success for them to beat the Packers."

If these two teams play 10 times at Lambeau, how many do the Packers win, and how many do the Saints win?
"What are the field conditions?"

Typical cool Lambeau. Thirty degrees or lower.
"Snow?"

No snow.
"The Packers win eight of those games. New Orleans wins two."

***

Clearly, Sharper doesn't give the Saints a high percentage chance. Me neither. Ironically, I think the very ingredient New Orleans lacks was sitting right in front of me with a turkey burger in his hand.

While the Saints love to take risks on defense, they don't have that dynamic player -- like Sharper -- who can capitalize on the mistakes that hurried quarterbacks make. Look no further than 2009, when the veteran safety picked off nine balls, returning three for scores. Quarterbacks would think twice about taking vertical shots on what they think is single coverage if an Ed Reed or Sharper is playing centerfield.

Rodgers won't have that concern should he face the Saints in the NFC title game. It will be up to the style of game Payton calls, and how sound Williams' defenders play within his risky schemes, as to whether the Saints can pull off the upset.

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