Silverstein: Time for Packers to turn Aaron Jones loose in running game
GREEN BAY – By and large, the Green Bay Packers' running game has been acceptable.
It is averaging 4.0 yards per carry, which ties for 16th best in the NFL. It has 11 rushing first downs, which ties for 15th. It has rushed for a first down 26.2 percent of the time, which ranks 10th.
All fair enough, but there is one thing missing.
His name is Aaron Jones.
It wouldn’t be a stretch to think that if the second-year running back had been available Sunday — instead of watching from an unknown location due to the two-game suspension the NFL levied against him — the Packers wouldn’t have had to settle for five field goals in a 29-29 tie with the Minnesota Vikings.
Jones returns from his two-game punishment for violating the NFL’s substance abuse policy this week, and he has a lot of making up to do. His poor decision to drive a vehicle after smoking marijuana could be the reason the Packers are 1-0-1 instead of 2-0.
To accept that assumption, consider his production from last year.
When healthy, he added an offensive dimension the Packers hadn’t had since Ahman Green was setting the club record for rushing yards in the early-to-mid 2000s. And Jones has an ability to dodge defenders that Green didn’t have.
Here’s all you need to know about Jones: When he and quarterback Aaron Rodgers were in the game together last season, the offense averaged 6.5 yards per play. In all other snaps Rodgers took, it averaged 5.15.
Jones, a fifth-round draft choice last season, languished on the bench the first three games before being forced into action when fellow rookie Jamaal Williams injured his knee against Chicago. Immediately, you could see he brought a different element to the offense.
The Packers obviously thought so because they started him against Dallas the following week and he busted out for 125 yards on 19 carries in a 35-31 come-from-behind victory. For some reason, the coaches started Ty Montgomery instead of Jones the next week against Minnesota, but it didn’t matter much because Rodgers got hurt and the rest of the season was a mess.
The only other time Rodgers and Jones played together was the Carolina game on Dec. 17. Jones carried the ball three times for 47 yards and should have been used a lot more. But Jones had lost the starting job to Williams when he tore the MCL in his left knee and Williams carried the ball the most that day (10 times for 30 yards).
Jones sprained his right MCL the following week against Minnesota and was done for the season.
Despite playing just 22.5 percent of the snaps, Jones finished tied for 11th in the NFL in rushes of 20 or more yards (six) and averaged one every 15 times he carried the ball. By comparison, Kansas City’s Kareem Hunt averaged one every 22.6 carries, the Los Angeles Rams’ Todd Gurley one every 34.9 carries and New Orleans’ Alvin Kamara one every 24 carries.
Jones finished the year with 81 carries for 448 yards (5.5 average) and four touchdowns.
Thus far, the Packers have no rushes over 20 yards. They also rank 27th in attempts with 42. Twenty-six teams have rushes longer than their long run of 16 yards. Williams ranks 17th in rushing with 31 carries for 106 yards and zero touchdowns.
“We’ve played two good defenses,” coach Mike McCarthy said when asked about the running game. “I don’t think there’s really enough attempts to dive deep into evaluation. I thought we ran the ball effectively (Sunday) against the Vikings.
“I’d like to have more attempts.”
Because Rodgers is his quarterback, McCarthy will keep the ball in the quarterback’s hands most of the time. For him to consider otherwise, a running back must make a splash, almost force him to call a running play.
The same is true for Rodgers, who can change plays at the line of scrimmage. After the Dallas game last year, he stated that his confidence in Jones was one of the reasons he stuck with a run play with 45 seconds left in the game and the Packers working on a game-winning 75-yard touchdown drive.
Jones not only gained 15 yards, he smartly ran out of bounds to stop the clock.
The shame of it for Rodgers was that he got hurt the next week and didn’t get a chance to build on what Jones had to offer. He was on the sideline when Jones kept the season alive with a game-winning 20-yard touchdown run against Tampa Bay in which he turned nothing into something big.
Rodgers never really reaped the benefits of playing a defense that had to account for Jones. Having someone who can rip off a 10- or 15-yard run at any time changes a defense’s outlook and takes a lot of pressure off the offensive line.
“He gets up to speed real quick, has really good vision, real good feel for the game,” guard Lane Taylor said. “Last year, he hit some of those runs that weren’t supposed to hit where they hit, but he has a good feel, good vision. I just like that he gets up to speed so fast and makes guys miss.”
Jones missed two weeks of training camp with a hamstring injury but made it back in time to play against the Chiefs in the exhibition finale. That was an important milestone in his recovery because he got through it without further damage.
Running backs coach Ben Sirmans told Jones after last season that he needed to build up his leg strength so he could avoid the knee injuries he suffered. Jones took it to heart, but whatever work he put in hasn’t been tested.
How McCarthy decides to divvy up carries among Jones, Williams and Montgomery isn’t clear, but if Jones starts breaking off 20-yard runs again, it will be hard to keep him out of the lineup.
On the other hand, Williams has been steady and pulled a lot of freight as a rookie last season. And through the first two games, he has been slamming the door on inside blitzers determined to hit Rodgers.
Williams hasn’t just been looking to stop the momentum of those blitzers; he has been trying to put them on their back.
“Jamaal did a heck of a job pass blocking,” McCarthy said. “I thought he blocked both (of Minnesota’s) linebackers. He gives you great confidence in how you go forward.”
In other words, how do you keep him out of the game on third down?
Williams wants to be a three-down back, but he has been sharing the running back role with Montgomery, who looked good carrying six times for 31 yards against the Vikings. Williams must find a way to get into the open field if he wants to compete with Jones for carries.
What the Packers need is someone who can force McCarthy to call more running plays and keep the offense balanced. Jones can do it. It’s also a chance for him to atone for leaving his teammates shorthanded in two critical NFC North games.