Mon, 20 Sep 2021

The gauntlet starts now for Packers

Packers
12 Sep 2021, 18:12 GMT+10

Perspective on the 2021 schedule, rookie starters and track record in openers Mike Spofford

GREEN BAY - It's a daunting yet strange schedule that begins Sunday for the Packers.

New Orleans is the first of nine 2021 Green Bay opponents that made the playoffs last season, meaning 10 of the Packers' 17 regular-season contests (with two vs. the Bears) will be against postseason qualifiers, most in the league.

But the Saints are also the first of four playoff opponents on the schedule with a new quarterback, as Jameis Winston takes over for future Hall of Famer Drew Brees. Chicago, Washington and the L.A. Rams have changed quarterbacks from 2020, too, with the Rams' new QB a familiar foe in Matthew Stafford, formerly of Detroit.

Back to Winston, he's the first starting QB for the Saints to face Green Bay since 2005, when former Packers backup QB Aaron Brooks did so. Todd Bouman also played in that game, which became a blowout win for the Packers. Only once in six meetings in the Rodgers era was the QB matchup not Rodgers-Brees, when Brett Hundley subbed for an injured Rodgers in 2017.

One of the many curiosities in this game is just how Saints head coach Sean Payton's offense will look with Winston at the controls instead of Brees. In short, the Packers are expecting to be challenged deep.

"The biggest difference, in my eyes, is Jameis has a big-time arm and he can push the ball down the field," Head Coach Matt LaFleur said. "I'm sure there's going to be more passes down the field.

"You also don't know what to account for in terms of how much they'll play Taysom Hill at quarterback. There's a lot of unknowns. Anytime you're going up against a good group and creative coaches, I think that's always the case."

The other change with facing Winston is being mindful of his running ability. He's not a scrambling quarterback by any means, but in 70 career starts, he has posted more than 25 rushing yards in a game eight times. By contrast, Brees did that just once in 286 career starts, way back in 2002.

Rare lineup: With Josh Myers and Royce Newman slated to start at center and right guard, respectively, the Packers will have two rookie draft picks on their opening-day offensive line for the first time since 2006. Myers was chosen in the second round and Newman in the fourth.

Fifteen years ago, it was third-rounder Jason Spitz at left guard and fifth-rounder Tony Moll at right guard in Mike McCarthy's first game as head coach.

The first of three draft picks on the offensive line that year, second-rounder Daryn Colledge, actually wound up playing the most for the Packers with 83 career starts, including playoffs. He stepped into the starting lineup in Week 2 as a rookie, but he was out Week 1 due to injury, one of only four games he missed over five seasons in Green Bay. Colledge's final game in a Packers uniform was Super Bowl XLV.

Since '06, the only rookie draft picks on the offensive line to start a season opener for the Packers have been left tackle David Bakhtiari (fourth round, 2013) and center Corey Linsley (fifth round, 2014).

Bakhtiari and Linsley both made their debuts in highly challenging environments. The Packers opened the '13 season at San Francisco, with the 49ers coming off a Super Bowl appearance, while the '14 opener at ultra-noisy Seattle featured the Seahawks coming off a Super Bowl title.

The noise factor for Myers and Newman in their first game has been mitigated dramatically by the contest having been moved from the Superdome in New Orleans to TIAA Bank Field in Jacksonville, where there's a good chance more Packers fans will be in attendance and the offense won't have to use the silent count.

Be that as it may, it'll still be a trial by fire for the two rookies up front against an experienced and aggressive Saints defense.

"There's going to be some learning moments that are going to happen naturally," LaFleur said. "We just have to make sure we do learn from them and can't make the same mistakes twice."

For the record: The last time the Packers entered a season with new coordinators on both special teams and defense was 2009. That year, Dom Capers took over the defense and Shawn Slocum the special teams. Like Capers, Joe Barry has previous coordinator experience, while like Slocum, Maurice Drayton has not been a coordinator at the NFL level before.

Also, Aaron Rodgers is 10-3 in season openers as a starting QB, a record compiled in streaky fashion. He won his first four (2008-11), then lost three straight (2012-14), and has since won six more in a row (2015-20).

All of Rodgers' openers except one has been against an NFC opponent. The only AFC foe was Jacksonville, the site of Sunday's game vs. the Saints.

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