On Record Paces: Packers Secondary Readies For Saints Passing Attack

Green Bay’s defensive backfield has clearly made the most of its opportunities in the first 10 games as it leads the NFL in both interceptions and touchdown returns, but the Saints’ explosive offense may provide the sternest test to date on Monday night in New Orleans.

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Green Bay's secondary has clearly made the most of its opportunities in the first 10 games as it leads the league in both interceptions and touchdown returns, but the Saints' explosive offense may provide the sternest test to date on Monday night in New Orleans.

New Orleans enters Monday night's game with the top-ranked offense in the league, averaging 411.5 yards per game, including the No. 1 passing attack in the NFL led by quarterback Drew Brees.

Brees has thrown for a league-best 3,251 yards through 10 games, putting him on pace to break the record of 5,084 set by Miami's Dan Marino in 1984. He also leads the league in attempts (398) and third-down passer rating (120.5).

"He's having a good season," Saints head coach Sean Payton said. "He's been throwing the ball well. He has been extremely accurate. He gets rid of it quick himself. He goes through his progressions very fast and he has worked extremely hard.

"Occasionally you come across somebody that can improve or raise the level of those around him. He is one of those guys that is a tremendous leader for us. He has been the one, stable consistent thing for us offensively, knowing what you are going to get each game with him."

Brees has thrown for 300-plus yards seven times and 400-plus yards twice, both of which lead the league. The Saints also lead the league with 26 passes of 25-plus yards despite missing wide receiver Marques Colston, tight end Jeremy Shockey and running back Reggie Bush for parts of the season due to injuries.

"We have put a lot of time and effort into kind of building that timing and building that confidence with one another," Brees said. "I feel like we have been able to plug guys into a lot of different areas and they have played very well."

The contributions have come from all three groups of the Saints offense. Wide receivers Lance Moore (52 catches for 609 yards, 5 TD) and Devery Henderson (22-554-3) have been steady producers, and Colston, who posted back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons in 2006-07 but has missed five games this season, posted season highs two weeks ago at Atlanta with seven receptions for 140 yards.

Combine that with Shockey (30-262) and fellow tight end Billy Miller (28-388), Bush (42-366-3), and an offensive line that has only allowed eight sacks all season, and the Saints' air attack is clearly a well-rounded one.

"I think (Payton) is a very creative play-caller and I think he is smart and he knows how to get his guys open and get them the ball and let them work," linebacker A.J. Hawk said. "So I think that's one of the biggest challenges there is."

Monday's challenge will fall to a Green Bay secondary ranked third in the NFL that has registered 16 interceptions, tops in the league, and is allowing opposing quarterbacks to complete just 51.5 percent of their passes, also a league best. Not since 1997 has a Green Bay defense held opponents to under a 52 percent completion percentage in a season.

Only twice this season has an opposing offense thrown 40 or more passes against the Packers, both coming in Green Bay wins (at Detroit, 45; vs. Indianapolis, 42), and four times this season they have seen teams attempt less than 30 passes. That is likely to change Monday night against a Saints team that has been throwing the ball nearly 40 times a game.

"We're not just winging it; we have a plan," Brees said. "I feel like the way we have been able to spread the ball around and get everybody involved, we've had some guys step up and play great. It's a fun system to play in. I love our head coach's mentality and that aggressive mentality. It's definitely a quarterback-friendly offense."

Along with the increased workload in the defensive backfield will also come more opportunities to make big plays, something the secondary has capitalized on this season. Six of the Packers' 16 interceptions have been returned for scores, which ties the franchise record and leads the league. Safety Nick Collins and cornerback Charles Woodson are tied for the league lead with five picks each, and cornerback Tramon Williams is tied for third in the NFL with four.

"I think what we are doing this year is when we have the opportunity to make the plays we are making the plays," secondary coach Kurt Schottenheimer said. "We just have some guys that can really run the football. They really are explosive and fast and have good running skills."

Combine those interceptions for scores with defensive end Jason Hunter's fumble recovery for a touchdown last week against Chicago, and the Packers now have a franchise-record seven defensive touchdowns, with both marks approaching some of the best seasons in NFL history.

{sportsad300}The 1961 San Diego Chargers hold the NFL record with nine interceptions for touchdowns, and only three other teams in league annals have returned seven or more interceptions for scores. The 1998 Seattle Seahawks posted eight, and the 1984 Seahawks and 1999 St. Louis Rams each had seven. The NFL record for overall defensive touchdowns since the merger is 10, set by the '98 Seattle team.

"We really haven't sat down and reflected on it," Collins said. "Right now we just want to get the job done. We want to win, and that's our main focus, win and try to make it to the postseason."

But the two often go hand-in-hand. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, since 2004, teams that scored on a defensive touchdown have posted a record of 249-91 (.732). This season, the Packers are 3-2 in their games with a defensive score.

"A defensive touchdown or a special teams touchdown, they're just huge momentum swings in the football game," Head Coach Mike McCarthy said. "Having seven this year is just a credit to the players and the extra time that they've put in, particularly in our practice structure.

"We emphasize it all the time, and you can just see the urgency and aggressiveness of our coverage units on special teams and defensively, when they do have an opportunity to get their hands on the ball."

Schottenheimer, who was the defensive coordinator in Kansas City in 1999 when the Chiefs scored nine defensive touchdowns, tied for second in league history, said the boost provided by a defensive score can be felt throughout the team.

"I think it picks the team up tremendously," Schottenheimer said. "It's such a confidence builder when you can score on defense. It really makes a difference and guys play with a lot more energy and a lot more confidence."

Whether the secondary will be able to provide that difference-making play for the defense in New Orleans remains to be seen, but Schottenheimer said the players are embracing the test that is on its way.

"Without question they like the challenge," Schottenheimer said. "They like going up against the best, and clearly these guys are the best offense in the league right now, certainly statistically. We understand the challenge that is ahead of us."

Injury/participation update:The Packers added four players to their injury report on Thursday. Defensive tackle Colin Cole (elbow) and center Scott Wells (shoulder) were both full participants.

Defensive end Aaron Kampman (calf) and safety Charlie Peprah (calf) were both limited.

For New Orleans, running back Reggie Bush (knee) and wide receiver Marques Colston were both limited participants. Tight end Jeremy Shockey (ankle), who was classified as limited on Wednesday, was not listed on the injury report on Thursday.

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