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 blitzes
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
As much as one player on a 3-4 defensive line can be a key to the game, Neal is it. The Packers are paper-thin on the defensive line, keeping just six on their 53-man roster, and can ill-afford to lose another player to injury. Neal has had limited practice this week and is listed as questionable but it would be a crushing blow to the line if he is unable to go. That would leave the Packers with just five down linemen, a risky move consider the Saints' potential in the ground game.
Unstoppable force meeting an immovable object
So maybe it isn't that extreme, but the Packers' passing attack should be one of the best in the league, and it faces a Saints' secondary that gave up the fewest passing touchdowns in the league and allowed the fourth fewest passing yards a season ago. The Saints' weakness on defense is their defensive line, which could open up things for running backs Ryan Grant and James Starks, but if the Packers are going to score it's going to be through the air. Safeties Roman Harper and Malcolm Jenkins run a tight ship in the secondary, so it will be interesting to see how the Packers attack them. Look for the Packers to, as usual, spread the offense out and give Rodgers as many weapons as possible.
The impact of rookie Mark Ingram and Pierre Thomas
Only two teams in the league (Washington and Arizona) ran the ball less than the Saints in 2010, but that could chance this year with the addition of rookie Mark Ingram. The former Heisman Trophy winner looked special in the preseason and, with Thomas leading the ground game, Ingram could become a valuable asset on third down and at the goal line. The Packers are sure to respect Brees and the Saints passing attack, which could open things up in the front seven. A.J. Hawk and Desmond Bishop will need to keep an eye on the Saints' sneaky running backs out of the backfield as well.
The long awaited return of Jermichael Finley
Everyone (including defensive coordinator Gregg Williams) knows the Packers' wide receiver corps is special, but on this night it could be Jermichael Finley who he needs to worry about most. Playing for the first time since he injured his knee in a Week 4 loss to the Redskins, Finley is ready to get back on the field as the league's biggest matchup problem. Whether Finley is lined up against a linebacker (not a good idea) or draws a cornerback or safety down the middle, he is sure to free things up on the outside and will be more important than anyone on the Packers offense not named Rodgers. Finley could break out statistically, but his presence on the field and the attention he garners will do just as much.