NEW ORLEANS – The Green Bay Packers were 1 ½-point underdogs to the New Orleans Saints on Sunday night.
So losing to a Saints team that, though struggling at 2-4 coming in, has one of the NFL's best quarterbacks and formidable offensive talent isn't surprising in a long NFL season.
But if dropping to 5-3 heading into their bye is far from devastating, the Packers have to come out of this game again concerned about their defense, and more specifically their inability to stop the run.
That side of the ball was an issue earlier in the season, and it became one again Sunday matched up against the best all-around offense they've faced this year. The Saints turned a tight game into a 44-23 blowout because they went 3-for-4 on shot plays downfield. And they went 3-for-4 on those plays in part because the Packers struggled to control running back Mark Ingram, who rushed for 172 yards and a 7.2-yard average.
'It puts you on your heels," cornerback Tramon Williams said of the play-action deep passes. "Run game, pass game, they're both working, everything jells for (them). Their play action worked. They're running the ball, they can spread 'em out and do what they want, look for matchups. It was a tough deal today."
The Packers came into this game ranked No. 31 in the NFL in rushing yards allowed and No. 25 in yards allowed per carry. There was reason to wonder, though, whether those numbers were misleading because the defense had been better in wins the last three weeks. Two of their last three games were blowouts (over Minnesota and Carolina) and in the third gave up only 63 rushing yards combined to Miami halfbacks Lamar Miller and Knowshon Moreno.
But against New Orleans, the inability to stop the run against the NFL's second-ranked offense in yards ultimately helped the Saints to exploit their speed advantage in the passing game. The Saints clearly were going to try to hit the Packers deep, where defensive coordinator Dom Capers was missing his fastest cornerback (Sam Shields) and fastest safety (Morgan Burnett). New Orleans, on the other hand, lines up two young receivers who run 40s under 4.40 seconds (Brandin Cooks and Kenny Stills).
With the help of a pass interference call, the Saints went 3-for-4 on deep shots that set up touchdowns and helped put up 495 yards in total offense.
"We had some chunk plays tonight," Saints coach Sean Payton said. "I was hoping we'd have that chance."
The Packers are deep enough in the defensive backfield that missing two starters isn't necessarily a game changer. With Davon House as Shields' replacement, and Micah Hyde to start in place of Burnett, the drop-off isn't that great, at least against some opponents.
But the Saints' run game, plus Cooks' and Stills' speed, were a big difference. Stills, a fifth-round draft pick in 2013, ran the 40 in 4.38 seconds at the NFL scouting combine two years ago. And the Saints traded up in the first round of this year's draft to get Cooks at No. 20, with the allure his big-play explosiveness that included a 4.33-second 40 at this year's combine.
On the other hand, Shields didn't play because of a knee injury. He's the Packers' fastest player – he reportedly ran the 40 in 4.30 seconds at his pro day workout coming out of the University of Miami in 2010 – and one of his best qualities is running with receivers on deep balls, at least when he doesn't get caught peeking the backfield. House runs OK (4.44-second 40) but is not the league of Shields, Cooks and Stills.
Burnett (4.51) is the Packers' fastest safety though he's not a blazer, and he didn't play because of a calf injury. And while Clinton-Dix (4.59) and Hyde (4.56) have been upgrades at safety this year, the one thing they aren't is burners.
So the Saints were looking to take their shots off play action, which worked because Ingram was effective enough early (4.8-yard average on 10 carries in the first half). To help stop him, the Packers usually brought up one of their safeties.
The backbreaker was Cooks' 50-yard touchdown catch in the third quarter that put New Orleans ahead for good at 30-23 and ignited the Superdome crowd. He got behind Hyde and Williams on a deep post pattern.
"They pretty much read our safety to see if he was in the middle of the field," cornerback Tramon Williams said. "All go (routes), whether we were in single high or not. I guess (Brees) saw the safety go, so he knows he has the middle of the field, he just throws it up there.
"There were a couple plays even when they threw it (at cornerback Davon) House, I tried to come from my side to help out, and it's a lot of field to cover. We have to figure out a better way to covering those routes if our safeties are going to be out in centerfield."
Brees also hit his first big pass on their first possession when Stills got behind House and Williams on a post pattern for a 45-yard catch on a post pattern. Both safeties were up on that play triggered by a play-action fake. That set up the Saints first touchdown from the Packers' 4.
The Saints might have had an even bigger win if Cooks hadn't dropped another bomb behind House, with Williams again trying to help. And the Saints turned a fourth deep throw into a big play when House was penalized for interference against Cooks.
"I thought the balance tonight helped us tonight," Payton said. "We got some advantageous looks with some heavy play action shots down the field out of some run looks."