GREEN BAY – His speed tilted the middle of the field. Josh Jones, like a green-and-gold blur, was everywhere Sunday against the Cincinnati Bengals.
He dropped in coverage. He crashed against the run. The Green Bay Packers rookie even had a pair of third-down sacks.
“Lights out,” fellow rookie Kevin King said. “He played lights out.”
It’s the type of omnipresence the Packers haven’t had in an inside linebacker. The benefit a defense gets when they put their most athletic player in the middle.
Need a big play? Jones was there. Didn’t matter what area of the field.
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He led the Packers with 12 tackles in a 27-24 win at Lambeau Field. None were bigger than third-and-6, opening series of overtime. Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton dumped off his pass to tight end Tyler Kroft near the right flat. In the open field, Jones had no help.
This was his man. His tackle.
Jones’ athleticism didn’t make the play. Aesthetically, it was far from his prettiest tackle of the game. Tale of the tape was a mismatch. At 6-6, 250 pounds, Kroft had four inches and 30 pounds of muscle on Jones.
The rookie clung to the big tight end like a wet towel, struggling to drag him to the field.
“Get him down,” Jones said. “It don’t matter. It may be an ugly tackle. Whatever, man. Just get him down.”
Ugly or not, the play showed why Jones might be ready to push this Packers defense to another level.
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It takes more than athleticism to play the role the Packers are demanding from their rookie. A safety by trade, Jones dropped into the box as an inside linebacker in their subpackage defense. It means he has more responsibilities, a bigger impact on the game.
Jones’ recognition made his third-down tackle impressive. With no backup, any slight hesitation could’ve cost a first down and, possible, the win. At the snap, Jones immediately diagnosed the play. He remembered the Bengals’ two-tight end personnel from earlier in the game, anticipated Dalton’s dump off to Kroft was coming.
“They kind of ran that same-looking play when they were in the ‘20’ personnel in the beginning of the game,” Jones said. “I knew he was going to check release, because it was third down. That was my guy. Just play ball.”
Jones has been playing ball at a high level since he arrived. He showed his athleticism on special teams before Sunday, demanding attention from extra blockers covering punts, but his defensive snaps came incrementally the first three weeks.
He didn’t play a single snap in the Packers opener against the Seattle Seahawks. He played exactly half their 58 snaps last week at Atlanta.
Jones, an injury replacement Sunday for safety Kentrell Brice, shined in his first career start against the Bengals. From here, it’s going to be hard to remove him from the field. He’s the fastest player on defense, perhaps the most athletic, and Jones showed Sunday he can handle a starter’s portion of snaps.
His veteran teammates said they weren’t surprised.
“No matter what stage he’s on,” Burnett said, “he’s going to go out and play football. He’s going to keep the game simple. He’s very mature for his age. Coming in, just being around him and hearing him talk, you wouldn’t think he’s a rookie.”
To be sure, those rookie moments still exist. Jones appeared to allow a touchdown when he didn't cover Bengals running back Giovani Bernard early in the second quarter. Bernard was so open in the left flat, he walked into the end zone.
Three weeks into the season, those rookie mistakes are inevitable. The transition from college to the NFL isn't without bumps. Jones' upside makes his development paramount, dictating what kind of ceiling the Packers defense will have in 2017.
Maybe the biggest advantage Jones provides is room for defensive coordinator Dom Capers to be creative in his scheme. With Mike Daniels and Nick Perry out because of injury, the Packers were without their top two pass rushers. It was a struggle to pressure Dalton early, until Capers started sending Jones on the blitz.
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Then, the rookie’s speed took over. Off the edge, the Bengals couldn’t get a solid block on Jones.
“The way coach Capers draws it out,” Jones said, “it’s tough on the offense. He draws it up, and then it’s up to us to get home.”
Jones got home. Twice. Then, with the game on the line, he made the defense’s biggest play of the day tackling Kroft.
Not bad for a rookie making his first start. With more games like Sunday, there will be plenty more to come. With Jones’ speed tilting the field, he could be a game changer for the Packers defense.
“He don’t look like a rookie,” defensive lineman Ricky Jean Francois said. “If he’s playing like a rookie, please show me. Because that kid is playing the way we need him to play.”