Aaron Rodgers taking on Drew Brees would guarantee a shootout under normal circumstances. But in an NFL season stranger than most because of the impact of Covid-19, Week 3’s meeting between two of the game’s greatest quarterbacks on Sunday Night Football is likely to be determined by other players.
Players such as Za’Darius Smith, the versatile pass-rusher who is key to Green Bay’s multiple and swarming defense. Players like Alvin Kamara the dual-threat running back who needs more work on the ground this week if the Saints are going to win.
Here are the keys for both teams, starting with the Packers:
Harass Brees with interior pressure
The Packers can take a note from their NFC North rivals the Minnesota Vikings about how to stop Brees. Creating pressure up the middle is key, the way the Vikes did during last season’s playoffs when defensive ends Everson Griffen and Stephen Weatherly moved inside to collapse the pocket.
Smith gives Green Bay the ideal weapon to repeat a similar plan. The outside linebacker has been causing havoc blitzing from the inside.
Za'Darius Smith has a top-10 Pass Rush Win Rate as a DT.
He's an OLB. This is how guys like Rashan Gary can get on the field more often and play well.
— Peter Bukowski (@Peter_Bukowski) September 22, 2020
Defensive coordinator Mike Pettine has a variety of ways for moving Smith around so he can find the best matchups. Pettine’s schemes have helped the Packers log six sacks, with pressure coming from multiple angles.
I'm not the president of the Mike Pettine fan club, but that's a salty design. Minnesota ends up with 2.5 guys to block *checks notes* Rashan Gary while Kenny Clark, Preston Smith, Za'Darius Smith and their 210 (!) pressures from a season ago each rush one-on-one. pic.twitter.com/OPITymw3ot
— Ross Uglem (@RossUglem) September 17, 2020
Brees has made a sketchy start to the season, and the Packers can pile on the misery by swarming around the 41-year-old whenever he drops back.
Rodgers must trust his other receivers
Davante Adams says “it’s too early to tell” if he’ll be ready to start after suffering a hamstring injury last week. While it’s a fair bet Adams makes the field at some point in New Orleans, Rodgers still needs to trust the rest of his supporting cast.
Rodgers appeared lukewarm about the Packers’ other receivers for most of 2019, but things are changing. Some of the unknowns have stepped up, particularly Marquez Valdes-Scantling, who has been establishing a niche as a deep threat:
Through Week 2, Packers WR Marquez Valdes-Scantling leads the NFL in Go route targets (4), receptions (3), yards (125) and Receiving EPA (+12.3).
— Next Gen Stats (@NextGenStats) September 23, 2020
Given how the Saints will need to roll the dice and blitz Rodgers, there will be ample opportunities to stretch the field vertically.
Lean on Aaron Jones
For a rare time in his career, Rodgers isn’t driving force of the Green Bay offense. That distinction belongs to running back Aaron Jones.
He’s got a knack for finding paydirt, having reached the end zone four times through two weeks. Jones is on a mission after pacing the NFL with 19 touchdowns a season ago.
He’s a sudden and shifty runner with the acceleration to turn solid gains into big plays every time he carries the ball. Jones ran for 168 yards and two scores against the Detriot Lions in Week 2.
Those numbers are bad news for a Saints defense gashed for 116 yards on the ground by the Las Vegas Raiders on Monday Night Football.
Keep Jones bottled up on the ground and he’ll still beat you as a receiver:
AARON JONES GET UPpic.twitter.com/3oWMzcuK9m
— PFF (@PFF) September 20, 2020
Moving Jones around will confuse the Saints’ defense and disrupt the unit’s keys on when to play run and when to treat him as a receiver.
That takes care of what the Packers must do, here’s how the Saints can win:
Disrupt the Pocket
It’s too easy to simply say pressure Aaron Rodgers. His slippery movement skills and ability to throw on the run make blitzing Rodgers a risky business.
Yet the tradeoff is leaving the 36-year-old to dissect your defense from a clean pocket:
No QB is more dangerous from a clean pocket than Aaron Rodgers 🚀 🎯 pic.twitter.com/ocBTMdN86L
— PFF (@PFF) September 24, 2020
The dilemma is especially tricky for New Orleans defensive coordinator Dennis Allen. He doesn’t have the horses up front to rush four and make Rodgers uncomfortable.
Allen will need to strike a balance between keeping enough eyes on Rodgers and his various weapons, while also generating significant heat.
Fortunately, Allen has a natural playmaker in safety Malcolm Jenkins.
Choosing the right moments to send Jenkins will give Rodgers something extra to worry about pre-snap.
Double Davante Adams
Adams is preaching caution, but I’m guessing the Packers find a way to patch up their best receiver so he’s good to go to face the Saints.
It makes sense for the Pack to pull out all the stops since Adams is the fulcrum of the passing game. Rodgers understands how important it is to have his best receiver available:
We always need Davante — he’s so damn talented. I think what we learned was maybe just how damn talented he is. He’s a game-changer and he changes the way defenses play.
If Adams plays, the Saints have to double him. Allen needs to avoid a repeat of last week when his defense let the opposition’s primary pass-catcher run riot during the 34-24 loss to the Raiders.
Tight end Darren Waller smacked the Saints down with 12 receptions, 105 yards, and a touchdown. New Orleans needs a better plan for the other team’s main weapon this week.
Give Alvin Kamara More Carries
There was nothing wrong with the way Alvin Kamara ran the ball against the Raiders. He just didn’t run it enough.
Kamara carried the ball a mere 13 times but still turned the meager workload into 79 yards and a pair of scores on the ground.
Alvin Kamara skating across the defense ⚡️
— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) September 22, 2020
The Saints will be tempted to make Kamara Brees’ go-to receiver to help cope with the loss of catch machine Michael Thomas. But letting Kamara move the ball on the deck more often this week has one obvious advantage. It’ll keep Rodgers standing on the sideline.
Kamara will move the chains consistently against this Packers defense. Green Bay let 35-year-old Adrian Peterson average nearly six yards per rush for the Lions, while Kerryon Johnson averaged four yards on eight carries and found the end zone.
Powerful nose tackle Kenny Clark has been dealing with injury but is steadily working his way back into the lineup.
Look for Kamara to dominate if Clark is less than 100 percent.