PFW executive editor and resident Packers expert Dan Arkush presents the second of three key matchups this week in advance of the Packers' 2011 season-opening showdown vs. the 2009 Super Bowl champion Saints at Lambeau Field Thursday evening.
Saints RBs Mark Ingram, Pierre Thomas and Darren Sproles vs. Packers LB corps
While both teams' high-powered passing games are impossible to ignore, the Saints have gone to great pains to bolster a rushing offense that ranked a lowly 28th last season and add badly needed balance to their attack. The Saints enter the season with a triple-threat ground game featuring 2011 first-round draft pick Mark Ingram, dual-threat holdover Pierre Thomas and flashy ex-Charger Darren Sproles.
Considered the most complete back available in this year's draft, Ingram should get the ball plenty on first and second downs between the tackles. A quick study, Ingram has the stamina and toughness to handle 20 carries a game if necessary. Reaching that number on a regular basis seems unlikely, though, with both Thomas and Sproles expected to figure prominently in the mix.
Thomas is a grinder who fights for tough yards both inside and outside and is a solid pass catcher (269 yards rushing, 201 yards receiving last year). Thomas had a strong Week One performance last year with 71 yards rushing and a TD on 19 carries in the Saints' 14-9 win over the Vikings, in addition to three catches for 15 yards.
Green Bay's run defense ranked 18th in yards and 28th in average yards per carry but became increasingly stingy as the season wore on into the playoffs. On early downs, Packers defensive coordinator Dom Capers normally uses a 3-4 front with a safety down to curtail the run.
Two Packers 'backers particularly worth watching in pursuit of the Saints RBs are inside starters A.J. Hawk and Desmond Bishop.
Hawk led the Packers with 134 tackles (according to team stats) and earned a hefty new long-term contract after emerging as a very steady, effective traffic cop in the middle of the defense. Tremendously poised in the heat of battle, the unflappable Hawk just kept getting better in terms of recognizing schemes and grew as a leader in the locker room. It is worth noting, though, that a lot of his tackles were downfield.
Considered to be the team's most instinctive defender in the front seven, Bishop, who also received a nice contract extension, was the second-leading tackler in 2010 with 121. Bishop has a real nasty streak that carried over to the rest of the unit. He is not the fastest linebacker, and he can be over-zealous in pursuit. But he is a great tackler who loves to make the big hit.
Rounding out the Packers starting LB corps are Clay Matthews, who will be counted on more to provide a pass rush in this game but will still make his share of tackles, and Erik Walden, the new starter at right outside linebacker best remembered for his all-world performance in the regular-season finale against the Bears that propelled the Packers into the playoffs (12 tackles, 2.5 sacks, five QB hits and three tackles for loss).
A pickup off the waiver wire in late October, the athletic Walden started six games down the stretch before sitting out the Super Bowl with an ankle injury and did not have a single penalty. Walden has managed to absorb a complicated defense in a very short time.