Silverstein: Packers' best hope lies with rookie Aaron Jones
GREEN BAY - It is probably a mistake to judge Green Bay Packers quarterback Brett Hundley on just one NFL start, but it is not a miscalculation to say rookie Aaron Jones is the team’s best hope for salvaging something out of an Aaron Rodgers-less second half of the season.
When in each of a guy’s first two starts in the NFL he breaks the 100-yard mark and averages more than 6 yards per carry, you don’t need to give anyone else a shot just to make sure you’re not overlooking something.
The fifth-round pick out of UTEP is the best offensive player the Packers have now that Brett Hundley is the quarterback and receivers Davante Adams, Jordy Nelson and Randall Cobb won’t be getting their hands on the ball as much.
The Packers’ 26-17 loss to the New Orleans Saints on Sunday at Lambeau Field was a sneak preview of what is going to happen the rest of the season unless coach Mike McCarthy can do with Jones what Kansas City’s Andy Reid has done with Kareem Hunt or Washington’s Jay Gruden has done with Chris Thompson.
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Unless McCarthy establishes Jones as the most dangerous player on the field to his opponents, he’s going to have an uphill climb getting Hundley to win games for him. As Hundley showed with a 39.9 passer rating in his first start, he’s not ready – and possibly not capable – of succeeding in the current offense.
The guy who is capable is Jones, who finished with just 17 carries and gained 131 yards, including 46 on a first-quarter touchdown run in which not a single defender laid hands on him. His perfectly timed acceleration behind guard Justin McCray’s pulling block showed he’s way ahead of the rookie curve.
“I think he’s got a knack for understanding blocking schemes and he has vision,” Packers left tackle David Bakhtiari said. “There are certain things you have to understand schematically and certain things where you need instinct. He has a good balance of both. It shows.”
It’s one thing, however, to just give Jones the ball and another to build an offense around him.
He’s not Ezekiel Elliott or Le’Veon Bell or Leonard Fournette, but there’s a chance Jones can do for Hundley what Hunt has done for Alex Smith (120.5 rating) or Thompson has done for Kirk Cousins (106.4), which is force defensive coordinators to focus on ways to stop someone other than the quarterback.
Given the veteran nature of the Packers’ offensive line, it wouldn’t be that hard to emphasize a quick-hitting ground game that features quicker backs such as Jones and perhaps fellow rookie Devante Mays.
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“I think overall, we’re very comfortable with our run game,” tackle Bryan Bulaga said. “Maybe not many people give us credit for it. That’s fine. Maybe people call our offensive line more of a finesse line. Whatever, that’s fine.
“But we’re more than capable of running the type of runs that we had today. We have a back in Aaron Jones that sees things very well. Once he gets through that line of defenders, he can make a lot of guys miss. As an offensive line we have to continue to just get him in space and let him do his thing.”
The Saints didn’t come out trying to stop Jones, and they paid for it dearly in the early going of a soggy game. Jones, starting for Ty Montgomery, busted off a 15-yard run on the very first play.
After runs of 3 and 6 yards, he followed McCray into the hole on a power play that Hundley switched to at the line of scrimmage based on the Saints’ alignment and ran 46 yards for a touchdown. On a five-play, 75-yard scoring drive, Jones had accounted for 70 yards.
“He got us going there early with the big run,” McCarthy said. “He has good vision. I like his vertical slashing style. I thought he did a lot of really good things today.”
Teams who defend the Packers don’t usually start with their run game and then work from there, even when Rodgers is home with a broken right collarbone. They still have too much respect for Adams, Nelson, Cobb and tight end Martellus Bennett to go in that direction.
BOX SCORE: Saints 26, Packers 17
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Asked how much he thought his former team devoted its attention to the run game, guard Jahri Evans said, “I don’t think it was anything glaring.”
Jones had 97 yards on 10 carries and three catches for 7 yards at the end of a first half in which the Packers led, 14-7.
Coming out of the half, McCarthy forgot about Jones and gave it to him just once on a failed five-play drive in which Hundley completed 2 of 3 passes for 21 yards but took a critical 8-yard loss on a sack and fumble with the ball at the Packers 42.
The Saints sandwiched a touchdown and a field goal around that drive to take a 16-14 lead before McCarthy got back to Jones. The rookie carried four of the first five times on a drive that started on the 19 and gained 29 yards total.
“We had a good drive running the ball but just kind of stalled out,” Bulaga said. “Obviously, they’re going to make adjustments, we’re going to make adjustments. We just need to execute better.
“But I thought there was even in the second half room for us to run the football. We felt confident with the adjustments made at halftime; we felt really good about it.”
Jones needed a break on that drive, and McCarthy sent Montgomery in. Hundley threw incomplete to him on first down and Montgomery ran for zero on second down, all but dooming the drive. Hundley threw incomplete on third and 10.
Inserting Montgomery into the lineup shouldn’t have slowed things down, but it did. Given the runs McCarthy had been calling, Mays probably would have been a better fit, but he was in street clothes, a healthy inactive making way for Jones, Montgomery and rookie Jamaal Williams.
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All game long, the Packers looked inept running screen passes, which is something at which Jones and possibly Mays could excel. It would be part of shifting the offense more toward Jones and away from Hundley.
Ultimately, New Orleans pinned the Packers back in their own end late in the game and then focused on stopping Jones, dropping him for a 3-yard gain and a 2-yard loss. The Packers never recovered and head into their bye at 4-3 and with a lot to consider about their run game.
“We have to be able to adapt and do anything we are asked to do,” Bakhtiari said. “We have a lot of athletic and versatile players on this offensive line. Whatever mentality we need to go into a game, we can do a good job adjusting and moving on.”