As the Saints take the field against the Green Bay Packers to open the 2011 regular season, one idea will pretty much be taken for granted–that the Saints sure do have a good offense.  Unfortunately for the Saints, that’s only half the battle, and what may be more important come Thursday night is how the Saints erratic defense stacks up to another of the NFL’s elite offensive machines.

In the preseason, we saw a vastly improved pass-rush against San Francisco followed by the biggest egg the run defense could possibly lay against Houston.  The team seemed to rally against Oakland, only to see Jake Locker of the Tennesee Titans take control in the final exhibition contest.  The question facing the team as they approach games that count is this: can this defense once again become the turnover machine it was in 2009 en route to the Super Bowl, or will we see flashbacks of the defense that got (literally) run over by Marshawn Lynch and the Seahawks in last year’s wild card round?

The Passing Game

It was a well-deserved victory, thought Saints fans, when Drew Brees was rightfully recognized by the majority of pundits as being in the same QB class as Tom Brady and Peyton Manning.  Well, as proud as we are of Brees, that group got a new member last year named Aaron Rodgers.  Gregg Williams will take the Saints defense into Rodgers’ house and will no doubt unleash what can only be described as a blitzing extravaganza.  Williams is one of, if not the single most, aggressive defensive play-callers in the NFL, and getting pressure on Rodgers will be key if the Saints hope to mitigate the aerial assault that this offense put on the majority of its opponents last season.

The counter-argument of course is that taking players out of the defensive backfield just leaves Rodgers with more room to work, but pressure on Rodgers would necessarily hurry his decision-making process, and likely limit the freakishly athletic TE Jermichael Finley as he will need to stay in and protect his quarterback.  Williams does such a good job disguising his schemes and pressures that the idea of confusing even the most intellectually gifted QB on the planet is well within reach (trust me, it’s happened before).

Look at it this way: Aaron Rodgers was in roughly the bottom third of QBs in terms of how often they were blitzed last season, facing five or more pass rushers on just about three out of ten snaps en route to shredding nearly every defense he faced.  Williams likes to blitz far more often than that, and has produced one of the most takeaway savvy defenses in the NFL over the past two seasons and the fourth best pass defense last season.  Something’s gotta give.

The Running Game

The Packers running game will no doubt improve with the return of Ryan Grant and the discovery of James Starks, but it certainly doesn’t stack up to what Rodgers can do through the air.  This isn’t particularly reassuring, however, because the area in which the Packers struggle on offense is also the area that the Saints struggle on defense.

Stopping the run seems to have become an unfortunately consistent and vexing problem for the Saints coaching staff.  Having a healthy Sedrick Ellis should help, but the front office has taken a more proactive approach this offseason than in the past by adding massive defensive tackles Shaun Rogers and Aubrayo Franklin.  Franklin brings added size to the middle at 6’1″, 317 lb., and yet is somehow still dwarfed by the 6’4″, 350 lb. Rogers.  Lining one of these two guys up next to the 6’1″, 307 lb. (and all-of-the-sudden miniature) Ellis should plug up the interior of the D-Line if for no other reason than body mass alone.

Add in the super athletic rookie Cameron Jordan, two young, big-play-making OLBs in Will Herring and Jonathan Casillas, and gap-shooting leading tackler MLB Jonathan Vilma, and the Saints run D should be much improved, even against a scrambler extraordinaire like Rodgers.  Then again, this is probably one of those “believe it when I see it” type situations.

Key Matchup

Saints defensive ends vs. Aaron Rodgers.  Rodgers can’t just beat teams through the air; he has the surprising ability to beat teams with his legs as well.  Widely considered the best scrambler in the NFL behind Michael Vick, Rodgers can keep a play alive longer than just about an QB in the league.  That being said, it will be the responsibility of the ends not only to get to Rodgers, but also to contain him and hold the edges.

The Saints DEs need to avoid being pushed toward Rodgers through the middle of the O-Line, as this will likely result in Rodgers finding his way outside of the pocket and either making a big play down the field, or at least picking up five or so yards on the ground to set up a short yardage situation.  Gregg Williams will have to taylor his scheme in a way that allows the DEs to play a contain type of defense while still getting to Rodgers from other spots on the field.