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Packers prove they got enough work in

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Posted Sept. 09, 2011 @ 2:46 a.m. ET
By Eric Edholm

GREEN BAY, Wis. — Imagine what the Packers would have done with a full offseason to get their offense in sync.

That — and other forms of it — was the running press-box joke most of the night as Aaron Rodgers and last season's champion Packers (head coach Mike McCarthy would never allow us to call them "defending champs") put on a pretty good offensive clinic in the season-opening victory, 42-34 over the Saints.

Even Rodgers jumped in on the jokey fun, bringing the topic up no fewer than four times in his postgame press conference.

"Well, it must have been those offseason workouts," he said in various forms.

It was a surprisingly good game all the way through the final play — though one largely devoid of consistent defense — considering the way the Packers took control early. They used a diet of up-tempo passing and took a 14-0 lead before the lights were all the way turned on at Lambeau.

Rodgers threw for a career-high 188 yards in the first quarter, and his only misfire in a 14-of-15 passing start was a throwaway under pressure, as he finished with 312 yards on 27-of-35 passing with three TDs.

As for the Saints' pressure, they provided little. Defensive coordinator Gregg Williams tried it all: blitzing, stunts, dropping eight into coverage. Little worked; the front four of the Saints barely got a push as the Packers' blockers mostly dominated the game.

The Packers barely showed rust on offense. Sure, there were signs in the game that the lockout wasn't too far in anyone's rearview mirror (bad tackling, poor footing, execution penalties and, my goodness, special-teams miscues), but it otherwise was near-flawless execution by Rodgers and Brees, especially Rodgers.

"I thought Aaron was outstanding," McCarthy said. "Aaron commands the offense. He did an excellent job keeping us in favorable plays and no turnovers.

"He has set the standard and he's off to a great start."

Even aw-shucks WR Jordy Nelson couldn't help but playfully poke fun at the notion that the Packers not working out together during the lockout had any effect.

"A lot of people were worried about those offseason workouts we didn't do, but apparently we were all right," Nelson said.

In fact, the Packers were more effective offensively Thursday night than they were in the Super Bowl, when drops were a huge problem. The ball barely hit the ground when Green Bay possessed it vs. New Orleans, especially early on.

Falling behind so quickly reminded Drew Brees and Sean Payton of the last time they played here back in 2006, when it was 13-0 after three first-quarter Saints turnovers.

"Sean and I kind of referenced that on the sideline when, all of a sudden, it was 14-0," Brees said. "We had run two plays. But he said, 'We've been here before,' so we knew we could fight our way back."

Give the Saints some credit. Despite the 42 points they allowed, their coverage wasn't awful — Rodgers' passing was just that precise. Several times, SS Roman Harper, coming off his awful game in the playoff loss to the Seahawks, was in a position to make a play with blanket coverage.

"That's the frustrating thing about it," Harper said. "It's not like we were blowing coverages, guys were running open or beating us. Great throws always beat great coverage."

Brees (412 passing yards) and the Saints' offense had their moments, pushing the game to the brink, although he couldn't match Rodgers' throw-for-throw brilliance. And the Saints' 4th-and-1 pass failure at the Packers' seven-yard line, down eight points with three minutes remaining in the third quarter, proved to be a major turning point.

"Hindsight, it's easy to say, 'Kick the field goal,' " Payton said. "But that being said, we felt like we had a play we wanted to run. But it didn't work. It's not an easy call, but it's one that you look back on and I'll kick myself a little bit."

Still, the Saints were not going to win after allowing the Packers to score on four TD drives of 75-plus yards, three of which went for 80 or more. The defensive line, one playing without DE Will Smith (suspension), was shoved around repeatedly and seldom generated a pass rush without the benefit of a blitz.

"A couple of those back-shoulder fades just killed us," Harper said. "But we competed, we fought and it took great throws to beat us. We understand that if we can affect the quarterback just a little bit more, make him pat (the ball) just a half-second more, we have the chance to make big plays."

Harper was being diplomatic. Williams can only do so much if the defensive line doesn't improve, but it's also important to put things in perspective: These are the Packers, operating on the highest of levels — workouts shmerkouts.

"We put our work in," Nelson said. "We put our time in and worked hard in training camp."

The numbers might not show it, but the Packers showed Thursday night they could be very good in time defensively, too. Brees caught fire in the second and third quarters, throwing for 170 yards and leading scoring drives of 71, 60 and 46 yards to make it a one-score contest after the Packers appeared to have the game in hand.

But the short-yardage misfires came back to haunt them. Two hirsute Packers — Clay Matthews and Erik Walden, who had an excellent game — converged on a side-winding Brees, who barely was able to get off a pass on the failed fourth-down play in the third quarter, albeit an incomplete one.

"We gave up too many points, but we had the big plays when they counted," Matthews said. "On that play, we just chased (Brees) off his spot and got the ball back in the offense's hands."

On the final play of the game, with the Saints down eight points again, Matthews and SS Morgan Burnett led the charge of about six Packers defenders who stoned rookie RB Mark Ingram, playing in his first NFL game, and kept him from getting in the endzone.

"It's on the goal line, man," Ingram said. "I got to get in there. I have to find a way to get in there."

He repeated himself a few seconds later.

"This is the NFL," Ingram said, a towel covering his head in a now mostly-empty Saints locker room. "I have to find a way in."

The story, though, was Rodgers. And his 10 receivers. Without a 100-yard receiver, Rodgers spread the ball around to all of his playmakers, with nine catching at least one pass and no more than eight of his 35 passes going to any one player. He even fed the new kid on the block, second-rounder Randall Cobb, who caught a TD pass on his second NFL touch despite running the wrong route on the play.

Rodgers couldn't resist turning the rookie's mistake into a playful moment.

"That must have been because we didn't have workouts," Rodgers said with a smile, knowing that his team was doing just fine, lockout or not, layoff be damned, thank you very much.

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