Blitz-Happy Saints Will Challenge Backfield

Yes, we're already talking about the Week 1 showdown between the Packers and Saints. Was third-down back Brandon Jackson taken for granted or replaceable? Gregg Williams' defense will provide the ultimate test in a clash between units who love pressure.

For the last two seasons, the Green Bay Packers had the luxury of having one of the league's best third-down backs in Brandon Jackson.

As a runner, Jackson proved last season that he'd never be the kind of marquee running back that could pile up 1,200-yard seasons, a la his former teammate, Ryan Grant. As a receiver — his juke of Brian Urlacher in the NFC Championship Game notwithstanding — Jackson had shown he'd never be as shifty as the Saints' Darren Sproles or as explosive as the man he replaced in New Orleans, Reggie Bush.

But when it came to seeking and destroying blitzing linebackers, Jackson is about as good as it gets. And because of it, Aaron Rodgers boasts the NFL's passer rating against the blitz over the last two seasons (108.7 on 68.0 percent accuracy with 22 touchdowns and eight interceptions) and last season (104.5 on 69.4 percent, 11 touchdowns, five interceptions), according to STATS.

Last week, offensive coordinator Joe Philbin joked that he wasn't losing any sleep over Jackson's decision to sign with Cleveland in free agency because he was so old that it's never too hard to sleep. Still, with one preseason game to go and the clock ticking until the regular season kicks off against blitz-happy Saints defensive coordinator Gregg Williams, the Packers appear to have a major void on an offense that's predicated on throwing the ball.

"You've got to be ready for anything," Philbin said on Monday when reminded who they were playing on Sept. 8. "We're always prepared for the worst-case scenario in terms of we've got to be able to protect our quarterback. We've got to have answers when they blitz. The whole unit's got to be able to respond quickly. That's where the synchronization and the coordination of your offense is put to the test most. Yeah, we're going to have to be ready and we will be, but until they get out there and do it ... We're going to work our tail off and we're going to prepare like heck. We're not going to be able to help them (on the field) when the game comes."

Philbin and running backs coach Jerry Fontenot said they like the candidates but haven't reached a decision. Judging by the preseason and most of the third-down work during training camp, the front-runner is James Starks. At 6-foot-2 and 225 pounds, he's certainly got the size and physicality to stand up to a hard-charging linebacker. He's got soft hands as a receiver and used his shiftiness and power to gain 11 and 15 yards on screens last week against Indianapolis.

Third-round pick Alex Green (6-1, 225) isn't going to back down from anyone, either, and his 25-yard gain on a screen against Cleveland just confirmed that his 27 catches for 363 yards (13.4 average) during his senior season at Hawaii should translate to the NFL.

Fullback John Kuhn handled some third-down duty last season to keep Jackson fresh, and while he's a quality blocker, he lacks the dynamic running ability to consistently catch a 3-yard pass and get the necessary yardage to move the chains on third-and-8.

"We're really not there yet," Philbin said of making a decision. "We spent a lot of time on New Orleans last spring in the staff room. We'll all get together, we'll look at their package and look at where they're going to expose weaknesses in our protection, and we're going to do our best to sure it up. I'm not sure who's going to do it yet."

The role is as much mental as physical. While it takes strength and guts to stay in there against a 250-pound linebacker, the real key is the ability to sort through all the moving and bluffing at the line of scrimmage to find the safety or linebacker that the linemen can't account for.

That's a job Jackson made look effortless during his final two seasons, when he didn't allow a sack.

Whether Jackson was replaceable or taken for granted will be determined on Sept. 8. While Williams runs a 4-3 scheme and the Packers' Dom Capers runs a 3-4, they're renowned for their cutting-edge blitz packages and penchant for sending anyone at any time. How serious is Williams about getting after the quarterback? In the preseason opener against San Francisco, the Saints sacked 49ers quarterbacks six times — in the first half alone.

Last season, the Saints blitzed more than any team in the league, and only the Jets sent pressure more often than the Saints on third down.

Whether the Packers can protect Rodgers so he can destroy the blitz again remains to be seen. The backs have fared well mentally against Capers' array of blitzes, but with hitting kept to a minimum during training camp, they haven't faced a lot of live bullets.

"It's hard to evaluate because you don't get blitzed a whole lot in the preseason," Philbin said. "Part of your job on third down — obviously the checkdowns are important and the timing with the quarterback and all of that, but the real proof in the pudding is can you step up and pick up a linebacker? Can you find the blitzing safety, regardless of what side he lines up on? That's kind of to-be-determined. You orchestrate it as best you can, and in practice we do a bunch of that and we put them in as many situations as possible. But you've got to get out there and do it."


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Bill Huber is publisher of Packer Report magazine and PackerReport.com and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at packwriter2002@yahoo.com, or leave him a question in Packer Report's subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at twitter.com/packerreport.


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