How Packers Fell Flat Against Winston-Led Saints
The last time we saw Jameis Winston as an NFL starter was December 29, 2019. His day ended on the first play of overtime, throwing a 27-yard pick-six to Atlanta's Deion Jones to secure defeat for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. In the 624 days between his last start as a member of the Buccaneers and his first start as a member of the New Orleans Saints, a lot has changed for Winston. For starters, he got LASIK.
The New Orleans Saints had a lot of questions heading into the great unknown that is the post-Drew Brees era. Yes, this was still a Super Bowl-caliber roster, with a vaunted defense and one of the top offensive lines in the NFL. However, questions loomed large around this NFC dark horse, mainly regarding the quarterback position. When Winston was named starting quarterback over Taysom Hill, nobody could have expected his first game as signal-caller would end with five touchdowns and zero interceptions. Even fewer would have anticipated him achieving this while also generating a CPOE of 5.1%, good for 10th best in Week 1.
We only saw Winston throw 20 times, making a one-game sample size somehow even smaller, but it's already apparent that this is a different Jameis Winston than the one we saw in Tampa Bay nearly two years ago. Against the Green Bay Packers secondary, he still attacked downfield as he did with the Buccaneers, but he did so with a measure and precision previously unseen. According to NFL Next Gen Stats, Winston averaged 8.0 completed air yards per throw (fifth highest in Week 1) while throwing into tight coverage just 10% of the time (ninth lowest). If the Saints have any hope of maintaining their status as one of the NFC's elite, this new, measured style of quarterback play must be the standard, not the outlier.
Winston certainly can't take all the credit. Sean Payton called a brilliant game. New Orleans was able to dominate Green Bay in time of possession by orchestrating long drives. In the first half, New Orleans had the ball on offense for 21:51, while the Packers had possession for just 8:09. The Saints also finished 5-for-10 on third-down attempts and 2-for-2 on fourth down attempts, extending their already-long drives even further.
(Apologies for the broadcast angle. Blame NFL GamePass.)
If the Packers can sniff this out, Aaron Rodgers can get the ball back only down 10 with decent field position and plenty of time on the clock. Instead, nobody accounts for Juwan Johnson releasing into the flats after his block. The Saints have two linemen release to account for the only two yellow helmets on the right side of the field, and Johnson picks up 12 easy yards and a first down. The drive stays alive, New Orleans finds the end zone six plays later, and Green Bay goes into halftime down 17-3.
The decision to go for it on 4th and 7 increased the #Saints pre-snap win probability by 1.5%.
They convert and add an extra 8.2% in win probability.#GBvsNO
— EdjSports (@edjsports) September 12, 2021
Where the Game Swung
In lieu of our win probability chart for EdjSports (unavailable due to technical issues) I have selected a handful of plays that I thought made the difference in Sunday's game.
|Jameis Winston escapes pressure, scrambles for first down on third-and-long||2:48||Q1|
|Alvin Kamara stumbles, gathers, and stretches for first down marker||0:38||Q1|
|Marcus Davenport sacks Aaron Rodgers||12:53||Q2|
|Juwan Johnson screen pass converts fourth-and-long||5:08||Q2|
|Rodgers' first interception||9:41||Q3|
The box score does not do the New Orleans Saints pass rush justice. Even though Rodgers was sacked just once and ranked fifth in time to throw, the Saints pressured Rodgers when it mattered most. Cam Jordan forced Rodgers to throw the ball away on third-and-9, killing the Packers' opening drive. Jordan also nearly got to Rodgers on his first of two interceptions, forcing Rodgers to step up in a collapsing pocket and throw behind Davante Adams. Paulson Adebo completed his end of the bargain, picking off the pass and returning it to the New Orleans 40-yard-line.
Huge mistake for Green Bay.
— EdjSports (@edjsports) September 12, 2021
By the VOA
As you can probably guess, the Saints and Packers will bookend our first official VOA rankings. In fact, Green Bay will have the lowest offensive VOA and 29th defensive VOA headed into Week 2.
The Packers are the first team in DVOA history (since the 1983 season) to lead the league in offensive DVOA one season, then open the following season with the worst Offensive VOA in the league after Week 1.
I'll Take 'Things that Concern Me' for 200
The sky is not falling in Green Bay. Let's get that out of the way. There aren't many drastic differences between this year's roster and the team that finished 13-3 in 2020. But the Packers still need to make some adjustments if they hope to keep up in what is shaping up to be a very competitive conference.
For starters, the loss of center Corey Linsley to free agency and tackle David Bakhtiari to injury are already being felt in the run game. In 2020, Green Bay ran 52% of their run plays between the guards, ranking fifth in adjusted line yards. While that would suggest that the Packers backfield is one of the most successful groups of up-the-middle runners regardless of their line situation, Week 1 told another story. Aaron Jones, Kylin Hill, and AJ Dillon combined for 8 yards on four attempts when running up the middle. The Packers' 43 total rushing yards on Sunday is their lowest output on the ground since Week 16 of 2016.
The team was abysmal in late-down situations. While Aaron Rodgers was still in the game, the Packers went 0-for-7 on third down. One of those plays was wiped out by a penalized crackback block from Allen Lazard, but Dillon was stopped for no gain on third-and-1, so I'm counting it anyway. Rodgers passed on all six of the third-down attempts that actually counted, going 1-for-6 for 6 yards and an interception in the process. The play calling on these downs was particularly confusing. Rodgers' only completion on third down was his first passing attempt, caught by Davante Adams 5 yards shy of the first-down marker. That was Adams' only target on third down. In comparison, Marquez Valdes-Scantling was targeted three times on third down, resulting in zero catches and an interception.
Speaking of Rodgers, this performance was a far cry from anything we saw during his 2020 MVP campaign. Rodgers struggled tremendously to find anything downfield all afternoon. On passes deeper than 10 yards downfield, he went 2-for-7 for 45 yards and an interception. His interception was bad, too.
This was his second of the afternoon, backed up at his own 8-yard-line down 17-3. Rodgers air-mailed the ball 5 yards over Valdes-Scantling's head and into the arms of Marcus Williams. He just looked completely defeated at that point. If the Packers have any prayer of closing out the Rodgers era with a shot at the Lombardi Trophy, they need "Last Dance" Michael Jordan, not Washington Wizards Michael Jordan.
Most importantly, this defense cannot look as lifeless as it did in Week 1. Chalk some of this effort (or lack thereof) up to the 83-degree heat and the 56% humidity at kickoff in Jacksonville. New Orleans specifically scouted where Green Bay performed worst when selecting sites for their neutral-location game. That does not excuse the fact that the Packers defense was unable to generate a single play for negative yardage. The Saints offensive line seemed to be anywhere from 1 to 3 yards downfield on a given run play. Green Bay hasn't allowed five touchdown passes in a single game since Week 10 of 2016. Funny enough, tha drubbing came at the hands of Jameis Winston's cohort from the 2016 Draft: then-Tennessee Titans quarterback Marcus Mariota.
Best-case scenario, the Green Bay Packers treated a Week 1 neutral-territory game as their fourth preseason outing and this loss offers them the wake-up call they need to get going for the rest of the season. Worst-case scenario, what started out as Rodgers and Adams evoking Jordan and Pippen devolves into Green Bay losing their quarterback to a trivia gameshow and their star wide receiver to free agency.