The New Orleans Saints piled up 477 total yards, with Drew Brees riddling the Packers' secondary for 419 yards through the air. The tackling was abysmal. The pass rush was mostly nonexistent. They couldn't get off the field on third down.
And yet, the defense made the plays that were the difference as the Packers held on to beat the Saints 42-34 in a pulsating season-opening game that wasn't decided until after the full 60 minutes had burned off the clock.
"It's not what you envision," said All-Pro linebacker Clay Matthews, who teamed with Morgan Burnett to stuff Mark Ingram at the line of scrimmage with the Saints just 1 yard from forcing overtime with a furious 15-point rally. "Obviously, you'd love to have a blowout, but I think it represents everything that we preach, which is finishing games, and it comes down to the very last play – we win, or they have an opportunity to tie it up. I think it's fantastic to overcome that adversity, get the stop that we needed and get off the field with the victory."
The Packers' offense was mostly unstoppable but failed on two opportunities to put the game away in the final minutes. The Saints' offense was mostly unstoppable, too. After the first of the Packers' offensive failures, Brees drove the Saints 76 yards on 12 plays for a touchdown that pulled them within 42-34. After the second of the offensive failures, the Saints took possession at their 20-yard line with 1:08 remaining.
Brees didn't have any timeouts at his disposal – not that he needed them. With the Packers playing without Pro Bowl cornerback Tramon Williams (shoulder), defensive coordinator Dom Capers turned to his "Bat" personnel – one defensive linemen, four linebackers and six defensive backs, with Pat Lee and Jarrett Bush entering the game with Williams out. The Packers got no pressure from nose tackle B.J. Raji flanked by Matthews and Erik Walden, with Brees picking apart the eight-man coverage unit.
It was 10 yards and out of bounds to Darren Sproles and 11 yards and out of bounds to Jimmy Graham. Then it was completions over the middle to Robert Meachem for 18 yards and Marques Colston for 23 yards to the Packers' 18. With the Packers on their heels, Brees ran to the line and quickly ran a play rather than spiking the ball to catch his breath. Brees then hit Sproles for 9 yards to the 9, with Bush tackling him inbounds. This time, Brees got the Saints to the line and clocked the ball with 3 seconds remaining, setting up a do-or-die final play.
Except it wasn't.
As the clocked ticked 0:00, Brees rolled to his right and fired over the middle to Sproles, with A.J. Hawk leaping over Sproles right shoulder and batting away the pass. However, Hawk was flagged for pass interference, extending the game to one untimed down from the 1-yard line.
"I'm going to try not to get fined here," Hawk said. "I tried to jump over him and hit the ball, and I felt like that's kind of what happened. But, obviously, I guess it's not. I haven't seen the replay yet. I saw him, and he looked like he was pretty open, and I was going to make a play on the ball, and as far as I've been told, if you're making a play on the ball … I might've grazed him with my leg towards the end as I was hitting the ball. But I understand. That's the call, and we live with it. I'm just glad we got the stop on the goal line."
They indeed got that stop. The Saints went with their bread-and-butter power run. Ryan Pickett held firm against the initial surge, allowing Matthews and Morgan Burnett to push Ingram backward before he got close to the goal line.
"There was a few people in on there," Matthews said. "I know I got a good hit on him. That was a team effort. That was all 11 people getting penetration up the middle, obviously holding him up and stopping him from getting 1 yard."
While the goal-line stand was the defining moment, the defense made several other pivotal plays.
On the Saints' first possession of the game, Nick Collins forced a Colston fumble that Aaron Rodgers turned into a touchdown and a 14-0 lead. On third-and-4 from the Packers' 12 in the second quarter, Charles Woodson and Walden combined to break up a pass to Colston that forced a field goal. With the Saints driving toward a field goal just before halftime, Hawk blitzed on third-and-10, drew a holding penalty and forced a dump-off pass to Sproles that resulted in a 4-yard loss.
To start the second half, the Saints drove to the Packers' 7 but Brees was sacked on third-and-2 when Matthews thwarted a bootleg and flushed Brees toward Walden for a sack. Instead of a touchdown, the Saints managed a field goal that cut the margin to 28-20.
Finally, late in the third quarter of a 35-27 game, the Saints faced a third-and-1 from the Packers' 7 but Wynn and Howard Green stopped Ingram about a foot short. On fourth down, Brees was pressured by Matthews and Wynn and retreated so far that his pass to Pierre Thomas landed incomplete at his feet at the 20-yard line. "It's about making one more play than the other team, and we were able to do that," Charles Woodson said. "That fourth-down play was huge, and then that last play, that was obviously big. I think (after the pass-interference penalty), the guys understood, ‘We have to dig in and somebody's got to make a play.' That push we got on the line and everybody converging, that's what it's all about."
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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 email@example.com, or leave him a question in Packer Report's subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at twitter.com/packerreport and Facebook under Bill Huber.