The 2005 Saints were dealing with the tragedy of one of the nation's worst natural disasters, had a quarterback who did not want to be with the team, were led by a coach who was on his way out, and played without their top wide receiver when they visited Green Bay last October.
This year, they are ready to move on after Hurricane Katrina with a new quarterback, the best of the new first-year coaches, and their go-to-guy, Joe Horn, who will be in the starting lineup. There is also one other noticeable difference which will provide fans with the featured attraction at Lambeau Field this weekend. They have the most exciting and dangerous player to come out of the draft in several years.
Running back Reggie Bush, the No. 2 overall selection, has changed the face of the Saints offense and will give the Packers defense arguably its greatest individual challenge of the season. Defending against Bush is the ultimate chess match and he gives the Packers much to think about in the coming days.
"He's like the Marshall Faulk of our time," said safety Marquand Manuel. "You've just got to prepare for him, be ready for him, and game plan for him…. He poses a lot of different things, a lot of different matchups at different times."
The Saints used Bush all over the field in a 19-14 Week 1 victory at Cleveland. He was split out wide as a receiver, was used in the slot as a receiver, went in motion out of the backfield, played running back, and returned punts. Though he did not find the end zone in his first game as a rookie, he totaled 141 yards on 25 touches (14 carries, eight catches, and three punt returns), showing a versatility that will create nightmares for opposing teams.
So the big question on Wednesday at Packers headquarters was, "How will the Packers prepare for Bush?" Head coach Mike McCarthy was not revealing if the Packers had anything special planned for Bush, deferring rather to internal components within the base defensive system attempting to do the job.
"When you install a system, regardless of what you're in – offense, defense, or special teams – you have to have it within your system to take away featured players, and we have that capability," he said.
Indications from several Packers' defensive players are that they realize the huge challenge in facing Bush, but they also cannot get consumed by him. Other Saints' offensive performers like Drew Brees, Deuce McAllister, and Horn are also more than capable. Bush, though, is a different type of weapon, even as a first-year player, that will require special attention from everyone.
"It's just a thing where you have to make sure you're getting everyone to the ball," said rookie linebacker A.J. Hawk, who was selected three spots behind Bush in this year's draft. "A lot of times when it's one-on-one in the open field, he's going to win those, and we have to make sure we don't get in that situation."
Last week against the Bears, the Packers had some trouble in one-on-one situations, which begs the question of whether they can really afford to stay in their base defense as much this week and not get burned by Bush. The Bears were effective in mismatching tight end Desmond Clark with linebacker Brady Poppinga to produce big gains, and even fullback Jason McKie caught easy passes out of the backfield to extend drives. Clark caught five passes for 77 yards and McKie hauled in four others. The Packers played no dime defensive packages (six defensive backs) and limited nickel defense (five defensive backs) while quarterback Rex Grossman had a superb performance (98.6 passer rating).
No one player on the Packers defense will be able to match up one-on-one with Bush, so it will take a team effort to limit him. Utilizing a nickel defense when Bush is in the game will be the Packers' best chance to limit his big plays.
Cornerback Ahmad Carroll is the Packers' third cornerback, and though he has had his share of problems, he is the Packers' best athlete on defense and a sure tackler. McCarthy did not indicate on Wednesday that he will change anything to get Carroll in position to match up with Bush, but the third-year defensive back is a much better option than any of the linebackers if the Saints are able find open space like the Bears did by sending out receivers against Poppinga. Carroll is not expecting any increased playing time in the nickel or in the slot position (which Charles Woodson plays), but would savor the chance to go up against Bush.
"Yeah, he's one of the best players in the league and he just got here," said Carroll. "I relish the chance to go up against anybody. I want to face everybody on the field, so I would love the opportunity."
Carroll's physical qualities and toughness make him an interesting option to challenge Bush, but the Packers will do everything to swarm to Bush when he gets the ball. According to Manuel, the Browns last week tried to match up personnel with Bush and mixed defensive coverages when he was in the game. But Green Bay's defense is a work in progress under first-year coordinator Bob Sanders, thus the Saints are likely to find holes for Bush to make big plays. Brett Favre said last week that the offense is looking for something to hang its hat on, and so is the defense
"By no means are we happy with our performance as a whole," assessed Manual of the performance against the Bears. "One guy here, one guy there, one guy here, that's not how you play team defense and win. I think that's our main focus this week – eleven guys playing on the same page."
Rookie safety Tyrone Culver was a part of the Fresno State defense a year ago in a game where Bush shredded the Bulldogs for 513 total yards.
"We can't give away the edges, we have to keep him contained, and you've got to play good team defense," said Culver. "You're never going to get him one-on-one then. If we all hit our fits, force the ball where it's supposed to be, we'll be all right. I think if we don't leave anyone on islands and we're gang tackling, you've got to gang tackle because he breaks tackles, you know that going in, so just be there to help your guys out."
Along with inserting Carroll for a linebacker when Bush is on the field, it would not hurt the Packers to pray a little. A player like Bush revolutionizes the game with his ability, so a little divine intervention could go a long way in helping the effort.
Editor's note: Matt Tevsh is a regular contributor to PackerReport.com and Packer Report. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.