A brief overview of three storylines that could help determine the outcome of the Sunday night showdown between the Green Bay Packers and the Pittsburgh Steelers.
GREEN BAY – In a make-believe world where Ty Montgomery is never hurt and Devante Mays never fumbles, the Green Bay Packers might be able to spring a multi-faceted run game against the Pittsburgh Steelers and make Sunday night’s game competitive.
Shoot, maybe Aaron Jones shakes off a torn MCL – and the embarrassment of being accused of driving without a license while under the influence of marijuana – and picks up where he left off.
It’s not the reality the Packers face this week with the gargantuan task of beating the Steelers on the road with a quarterback who failed to lead the team to a single point last Sunday.
Maybe Montgomery will come back from injured ribs this week and make it through an entire game. It’s a possibility, but if you’re coach Mike McCarthy you don’t bet the Lambeau Field atrium on it.
Maybe Mays, who fumbled on his first two NFL carries Sunday against Baltimore, shows he’s mentally tougher than the guy who refused to provide a mea culpa through the media immediately after the game. But McCarthy shouldn’t bet the Titletown District on it.
What McCarthy has going for him heading into Sunday is rookie running back Jamaal Williams and fullbacks Aaron Ripkowski and Joe Kerridge. Williams hasn’t chewed up yards like Jones (70 carries for 370 yards and three touchdowns) did before his injury, but he has been an ironman the last two games.
After playing 11 offensive snaps in the previous four games, Williams logged 35 of the last 41 against Chicago after Jones and Montgomery left the game and 59 of 67 against the Ravens.
He carried 18 times for 57 yards and caught four passes for 38 against a defense that was happy to let quarterback Brett Hundley try to beat it. To say he was a featured part of the offense wouldn’t be accurate.
Hundley played the lead role in a poorly calculated decision by McCarthy and his staff, who probably read more into the quarterback’s strong finish against the Bears than they should have.
McCarthy said he felt handicapped once Mays fumbled and Williams was the only back he could trust, and there’s some legitimacy in his assessment. But McCarthy has used Ripkowski as a runner, receiver and third-down back in the past and probably needs to get back to it this week.
The offense needs to go through Williams this week or else Hundley is going to be chewed up and spit out against a Steelers defense that ranks second in the league in sacks (34) and third in opponent passer rating (74.2). If purple made Hundley nervous last week, black and gold is going to make him run for the Pennsylvania hills.
The Steelers' run defense ranks eighth and hasn’t given up 100 yards since the Bears gashed them for 220 yards in Week 3, so pounding Williams into the line wouldn’t be ideal in most cases.
But the Packers practice against a Pittsburgh-style 3-4 all through training camp, have a better-than-average run-blocking offensive line and can play with a fullback – or two -- in the game and still be multiple because Williams and Ripkowski are good receivers.
The Packers aren’t going to win a shootout with the Steelers, who put 40 points on Tennessee last week and still haven’t hit their stride offensively. They’re going to have to be smart and take out some of the gray area in the passing game that seems to cause Hundley so much indecision.
Running the ball helps create play-action and throwing to the backs can keep a defense honest and take pressure off Hundley.
Montgomery is built better for the rugged role of running it at the Steelers, but Williams has shown he’s tougher than people think. He has had to earn a lot of his yards the hard way because he’s not as quick as Jones and hasn’t adapted to the offense as quickly.
But the more he carries, the better he’s going to get.
Williams said playing all those snaps against Baltimore hasn’t taken a toll on his body.
“I feel good – today,” Williams said Tuesday. “After the game, you know, I was a little bruised. I’m like, 'Woo, I haven’t had this feeling in a while.' It felt good.”
The 6-foot, 213-pound Williams, who missed a year at BYU due to a suspension for violating the school’s honor code, didn’t come off the field much last year. He averaged 23 carries a game his senior year and finished with 726 over his four seasons.
After missing the second half of the 2014 season due to a knee injury and sitting out 2015, he wanted every snap.
“Especially when I came back off my suspension I was really trying to take every snap I could,” Williams said. “I started to learn, I don’t want to tire myself out and wear myself down, so I’d take off a series or two to get a breather.
“But it’s just about training and keeping my conditioning the same, trying to be the most conditioned person out there.”
How much punishment Williams can take in back-to-back games against AFC North defenses remains to be seen, but if the Packers want to play a ball-control game without stressing Hundley, Williams will have to play a big part.
At this point, he’s the best and most reliable option the Packers have.