GREEN BAY, Wis. — There will be little room for error Sunday at Lambeau Field when the 1-2 Packers host the 0-3 New Orleans Saints (3:25 p.m. CT on FOX). For two of the NFL’s three most recent Super Bowl champions, the beginning to the 2012 season has been relatively disastrous.
If the regular referees had settled their lockout with the league three days earlier, Green Bay likely would be 2-1 instead of one more loss away from dropping two games below. 500. But it took the Packers being the unfortunate recipient of a last-second missed call on Monday night to spur action between both sides and get an agreement in place, ending the error-filled run of the replacement referees.
With emotions inside Green Bay’s locker room boiling over immediately after Monday’s game, coach Mike McCarthy had a short week to get his team refocused. Yes, the Saints are struggling, but McCarthy knows the Packers’ season will only get worse if they overlook a team led by a quarterback as good as Drew Brees.
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“I look at this week as no different than any other week,” McCarthy said. “Our experience the last couple of days has been different, unique. You can’t deny that or throw it off to the side. I think it would be foolish. I feel like we’re all on the same page and we’re worried about one thing, and that’s New Orleans.
“We’re focused on New Orleans. All I want to talk about is New Orleans. Our record is 1-2, and we’re clearly focused on beating New Orleans and getting to 2-2. That’s where we’re at.”
To make sure his players were as focused on the Saints as he is, McCarthy, along with veteran defensive back Charles Woodson, addressed the team Wednesday with a simple, yet very important message: “It’s time to move on.”
So, moving on, the Packers have plenty of issues they need to fix in order to more closely resemble their 15-1 group from a year ago. Green Bay’s offense, which led the NFL in points last season, is ranked 25th in scoring after three games. Quarterback Aaron Rodgers, who was named the league’s Most Valuable Player for his record-setting 45-touchdown, six-interception season, has not been the same so far in 2012.
Rodgers has led Green Bay to only four offensive touchdowns in three games, while surrendering two interceptions and not throwing for nearly as many yards per pass attempt – dropping from 9.25 yards last season to 6.48.
But this game against the Saints offers a perfect opportunity for the Packers’ offense to look more like it did last year, as New Orleans is giving up the 25th-most passing yards in the NFL. The Saints are also ranked last in the league in rushing yards allowed.
“We’ve got to find our identity a little quickly here this week and start to get back to the way we’re used to playing,” Rodgers said.
Against Seattle on Monday night, Rodgers was sacked eight times, including seven times in the first half. This season, Green Bay has given up the most sacks in the NFL, four more than the next-worst team. Fortunately for Rodgers, New Orleans has only six sacks this season, the same amount as what Packers linebacker Clay Matthews has all by himself.
“With our pass protection, the good thing is that there are things we can correct,” McCarthy said. “Clearly, in my time calling plays, sacks are a disruptive thing to you as a play caller, what it does to your rhythm and your next play. Most of our issues in the area of sacks were in the protection unit, and (Rodgers) holding the ball is part of the protection unit. Our (issues) were more fundamentals.”
The Saints are having problems in nearly every area. They’ve had to adjust to head coach Sean Payton being away from the team due to a season-long suspension for his role in the bounty system. Even interim coach Joe Vitt was suspended by the NFL for the first six regular-season games as part of the league’s bounty rulings. That means it’s been up to Aaron Kromer, the interim interim coach, to try keeping the team afloat, but that hasn’t happened.
“Obviously, we’re still trying to get in a routine being 0-3,” Kromer said. “We haven’t had that around here in a long time, and we’re doing the best we can to get into a routine and get this thing straightened up. We’ve done the best job we can of keeping the main thing the main thing, and so we don’t talk about our challenges. We just keep moving on and talk about what we need to do to win a football game and be better individually and as a team.”
Brees, after signing a $100 million contract extension during the offseason, hasn’t been nearly as good as he was in 2011, when he became the NFL’s new all-time single-season passing yards leader. Brees ranks 25th in passer rating with seven touchdown passes and five interceptions and is also 25th in completion percentage.
“When things don’t go the right way, especially when you’re losing, you want to take that very personally,” Brees said this week. “You want to feel like, ‘Hey, what am I not doing? What more can I do?’ I think those are just the natural feelings of somebody who feels like they can really control the situation, especially when you’re a leader on the team and certainly the quarterback.
“I think there’s a balance to doing that and yet not putting too much pressure on yourself. There’s this balance of, ‘Hey, I just need to worry about the things I can control. I need to worry about doing my job to the best of my ability.’ The thing with the quarterback position is you feel like, ‘Hey, I can influence others,’ whether it’s by what I say to them or putting them in positions to succeed.
“This is frustrating because, certainly, this is not a situation we’re used to being in. It’s not something we like. So, yeah, as the quarterback of the team, I take it very personal, and I want to get this thing turned around just as much as anybody.”
For Brees to help get the Saints their first win of the season, he’ll need to outplay a Packers defense that has drastically improved from a year ago. Green Bay gave up more passing yards last season than any team in NFL history and finished 27th in sacks. But so far in 2012, the Packers are the best in the league in passing yards allowed and are third in sacks.
“(Green Bay) is a very good defense, extremely good against the run, great pass rush, extremely talented guys in the secondary,” Brees said. “So all the way around, this is as solid a defense as there is. For us, we have to execute. When we have the opportunity to make plays, we have to make plays.”
With high expectations for both the Packers and Saints coming into this season, whichever team loses this game will become the NFL’s most surprising disappointment through the first four weeks.