The 2011 NFL season kicks off tonight as the Green Bay Packers play host to the New Orleans Saints. The past two Super Bowl winners will get things going around 7:40 CT after Lady Antebellum, Kid Rock and Maroon 5 perform as part of the NFL Kickoff celebration, or something like that. But I digress, back to football. Here are five keys to the game that will decide which one of these two NFC contenders will start the year 1-0, and which will be looking for the first win in Week 2.
Battle of the blitz
No one was better in 2010 at passing against a blitz than Aaron Rodgers, and he will need to be just as good Thursday night. Saints defensive coordinator Gregg Williams has no problem blitzing from all directions and, with the way the Packers offensive line played in the preseason, this could be a major problem for the Packers. Rodgers will have to be on his toes and looking for his underneath routes, tight ends will need to block well in the backfield, and, simply put, the offensive line will need to step up.
On the other end, Dom Capers is sure to bring an assortment of blitz packages against the Saints’ high-powered passing attack. Drew Brees is just as good as Rodgers at getting the ball out of his hand, and a pair of pass-catching, check down running backs in rookie Mark Ingram and Pierre Thomas means the Packers will need to get to Brees quickly.
Whoever gets more pressure on their opponent could walk away with a win.
The health of Mike Neal
When Ryan Grant was lost for the season just two quarters into the 2010 season, many wondered if the Packers could survive with Brandon Jackson and fullback-turned-bulldozer John Kuhn.
For 11 weeks that duo worked, but the return (and debut) of little-known seventh round rookie James Starks threw another wrench into the equation. A wrench that would pay dividends down the stretch in the playoffs.
As the Packers enter the 2011 offseason, Grant is expected to be ready for all activity once summer workouts begin and will battle with Starks for the starting gig. Jackson is not under contract but could be back as an excellent third down back.
Rookie free agent Dmitri Nance was a solid fill-in but projects as nothing more than a practice squad body.
All this begs the question as the NFL Draft gets underway tomorrow night: Is running back a need for the Green Bay Packers?
The Packers will surely address both lines and will look into improving their pass rush on the right side, and may even consider a wide receiver early in the draft, but could an early-round running back provide an answer for the future?
Starting from the ground up, Grant is one of the more under-appreciated yet successful running backs in the league. He finished ninth and seventh in rushing yards the last two seasons, and in 2007 rushed for 956 yards in eight starts. Those numbers say a lot considering Green Bay’s pass-happy offense.
His injury should not be of concern, considering he played 15, 16 and 16 games the last three seasons and a whole season off should have his legs fresh for 2011.
Starks made head turns when the playoffs came around, rushing for 315 yards in four playoff games and coaches like him enough to give him a chance to win the starting job outright. While there’s a chance he doesn’t become the clear-cut starter this year, the 25-year-old Starks was given rave reviews by the coaching staff before the public saw him, so there’s good reason to believe he could be the guy.