GREEN BAY – Jamaal Williams couldn’t take his eyes off the big video screen behind Heinz Field’s end zone. He was about to score, but the Green Bay Packers rookie running back wasn’t caught up in excitement.
No, this was closer to fear. The anxiety a ball carrier feels when there’s only green grass in front of him, but he doesn’t know who’s chasing behind. In this case, Pittsburgh Steelers safety William Gay was sprinting with fury to catch Williams before the goal line. Williams knew the play wasn’t over, no matter how inviting that open field looked.
He saw Gay on the big video screen.
“I always use the scoreboard,” Williams said. “That’s for slow people. That’s what slow people do. You ain’t got no burners yet, you look at that scoreboard to help you out a little bit.”
Usually, “slow people” are not NFL running backs. Williams smiled while he said it, showing enough confidence to allow self-deprecating humor. Williams knows he isn’t setting any land-speed records. A fourth-round pick this spring, he ran a 4.59-second, 40-yard dash at the NFL scouting combine before the draft.
It isn’t a debilitating time for tailbacks – Kansas City Chiefs rookie Kareem Hunt, the NFL’s second-leading rusher this season, ran a 4.62 – but of the three running backs the Packers drafted this spring, Williams’ 40 time ranks third.
Williams didn’t run much slower than fellow rookie Aaron Jones’ 4.56, but their production suggested two players with different gears. Jones had a 22-yard run in his first start against the Dallas Cowboys. He had a 46-yard touchdown in his next start against the New Orleans Saints.
Entering his 11th NFL game, Williams hadn’t had a run longer than 8 yards. He didn’t have a catch longer than 18.
Then Williams caught quarterback Brett Hundley’s screen pass in the left flat, turned upfield and had to outrun six Steelers defenders to the end zone. His 54-yard touchdown was exactly three times longer than any other play in his career.
“I probably surprised everybody,” Williams said. “They probably didn’t think I was going to get in there. Shoot, I didn’t think I was going to get in there. I had to look at the TV just to make sure. Just to make sure ol’ boy didn’t get that extra (boost), snuff me at the 1-yard line.
“But other than that, I just saw the open field, and I was just like, ‘I’ve got to get in there. I’ve got to give everything I’ve got to get in there.’”
Early in his career, Williams made his reputation getting gritty yards between the tackles. It’s why the Packers drafted him, to bring a similar downhill style former running back Eddie Lacy provided. Williams established his short-yardage chops. At the very least, he has proven effective when the Packers must get a yard or two.
His short-yardage dependability will ensure Williams retains a role in the run game whenever Jones returns from the torn MCL that forced him to miss the past two games. Jones practiced this week for the first time since his injury in Chicago, so it’s apparent he’ll be back soon.
Whenever that time comes, the Packers will determine how to distribute carries between their two rookie tailbacks. With Williams and Jones developing at different paces, they’ve yet to put the Packers in a predicament.
Williams had the lead leaving training camp. It wasn’t until Jones’ fourth game that he got a carry. When Williams and former starter Ty Montgomery were injured in the same game, Jones instantly was thrust into a prominent role in the Packers' backfield.
Jones excelled in the featured role, exceeding 125 rushing yards in each of his first two starts. As Jones emerged, Williams lost traction and mostly was limited to special teams. But Jones’ knee injury kept the door revolving in the Packers' backfield, and Williams seized his second chance.
It once was a foregone conclusion Jones would resume the starting job when he returned from injury. After what Williams did in Pittsburgh, finishing with 135 yards and two touchdowns on 25 touches, he could give the Packers a difficult decision.
“I think Jamaal has proven himself,” coach Mike McCarthy said. “Obviously we played him all three downs. I thought he was excellent in the situational opportunities he had. I would say his numbers the last game reflect that of a feature back.
“I wasn't surprised. You go back to training camp, he was the lead guy in that rookie class, and that was for a reason. I think he's getting more comfortable with doing more things with him. But he's a complete running back.”
With a premium on explosive plays, Jones has been more complete this season. Both he and Williams have 70 carries. Jones is averaging 5.3 yards per carry, while Williams is averaging 3.2.
Long runs have been the norm with Jones. He has had three carries beyond 20 yards.
Williams’ longest was a 12-yard carry against the Steelers, and the game situation certainly didn’t hurt. The Packers were backed up inside their 15-yard line 66 seconds before halftime, facing a Steelers defense trying to prevent big pass plays.
But, interestingly, Williams has been the much more productive receiver. On 13 catches, he has gained 152 yards and scored a touchdown. Jones has 16 yards on eight catches.
Running backs coach Ben Sirmans said he’s already working on the formula for how to use Williams and Jones together. It could be tricky. Sirmans suggested one runner might take one drive, while the other gets the next. There also could be specific plays more tailored to each of their individual styles, Sirmans said.
“The most challenging thing about it,” Sirmans said, “is if the guy is really hot, you want to keep working him in and make sure you keep feeding him. As opposed to if he’s hot, then you take him out for a long time and he’s cold. We’ve just got to figure that part of it out as far as how those guys manage their games.”
Sirmans said Williams “deserves” to consistently get carries even when Jones returns. He calls Williams a “move-the-chains” runner, helping keep the offense in favorable down and distances.
Williams also has a trait not every running back can match. If he gets carries early, Sirmans said, he has shown to be a stronger runner late in games. Williams’ ability to wear down opposing defenses could make it difficult to take him off the field.
“It’s just how I run,” Williams said. “Every time, it’s just hard and downhill, and when I see those openings, I just take it. I really just try to be consistent, and the way I run the ball, make sure defenders know every time they try to tackle me, it’s going to be a hard tackle. So they’re going to feel me.”
The question is whether Williams consistently can sprinkle in those explosive plays with hard, downhill running. It may be the difference between working into a backfield rotation, and becoming that featured back.