As we reveled in the festivities before, during and after Thursday night’s NFL season opener, we also learned a great deal from the Packers’ 42-34 victory over the Saints.
We’ve learned that the new kickoff rule, which advances the placement of the kickoff to the 35-yard line, might not be as devastating as originally thought. Will there be more touchbacks this year? Absolutely.
But as we noticed in Thursday’s game, teams are not going to be afraid to take the ball out of the end zone. Green Bay’s Randall Cobb had a 108-yard kickoff return for a touchdown, which was on par with the excitement provided by two great offenses.
On the ensuing kickoff following that touchdown return, New Orleans’ Darren Sproles fielded the kick three yards deep in his end zone and returned it 57 yards.
The real key as to whether the new rule will have a dramatic effect on kickoff returns is the height of the kicks, not the depth. If kickers try to put the ball through the end zone by line-driving it, teams with good returners will take it out from any distance because they have a good chance of returning it to at least the 20. However, if the kickoff has good hang time, allowing the coverage team to get down the field in a hurry, there likely will be less returns.
What we’re bound to see is a lot of touchbacks earlier in the season, but don’t be surprised if the touchback rate drops later in the season because 70-yard kicks — which would land 5-yards deep in the end zone — in cold weather don’t happen very often. How many kickoffs did we see fall short of the end zone last year? Quite a few. Those kicks might make it to the goal line or just past that this year, which will allow returners to make a play.
The second thing we learned from Thursday night’s opener was how good the Bears’ next two opponents are. After Sunday’s game against the Falcons, the Bears travel to New Orleans before hosting Green Bay. After the 76-point explosion between these two teams, there’s reason to be concerned.
The Packers’ offense picked up where it left off last year with Aaron Rodgers dispersing the ball to nine different receivers. An already solid receiving corps added Cobb to the mix, who not only scored on the kickoff return but added a 32-yard receiving touchdown as well.
Greg Jennings and Donald Driver, long-time receivers with the Packers, had solid performances, as did Jordy Nelson, who caught 6 passes for 77 yards and a score.
The Packers also proved to be balanced by running the ball 23 times — not including Rodgers’ four scrambles — for 102 yards and two touchdowns. Ryan Grant, who missed most of last season with an injury, carried the ball nine times for 40 yards and James Starks, who replaced Grant last year, had 12 carries for 57 yards.
As for the Saints, they looked just as explosive as they’ve always been under head coach Sean Payton. Drew Brees completed 32 of 49 passes for 419 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions. The Saints used a three-headed attack at running back with rookie Mark Ingram, Pierre Thomas and Sproles. Sproles had 7 receptions for 75 yards and also had a punt return for a touchdown, proving that the Saints will not be missing Reggie Bush much, if at all. Six Saints caught at least 4 passes.
If there is one saving grace for Bears fans, it’s that while these two offenses are among the best in the league, their defenses have a ways to go, and their defenses had just as much to do with giving up a combined 76 points as the offenses did.
Finally, we’ve also learned just what a passing offense is supposed to look like if the quarterback is protected well. A lot of fans have harped on the Bears for not adding a “true No. 1 receiver,” but the Bears have the talent at the receiver position. Sure, none of them individually are great, but as a group they are good enough to make this offense go.
The problem is, and will continue to be, the offensive line. When Rodgers and Brees dropped back to pass, they did so with the confidence that they’d be protected. One can only imagine what’s going on through Jay Cutler’s head as he’s in the pocket. If the Bears had a better line, Cutler could worry less about who’s coming to take his head off, the receivers would have more time to execute their routes, and the offense would be much better for it.