Explosive Aaron Jones making most of 'spark-plug' role in Packers' offense
GREEN BAY – Aaron Jones sidestepped one tackler at the line of scrimmage, almost instinctively. He needed to beat another for a first down.
Rolling downhill, the Green Bay Packers tailback saw Buffalo Bills safety Jordan Poyer waiting in front of the marker, practically daring Jones to lower a shoulder.
One defender wasn’t going to be enough. Jones routinely made the Buffalo Bills miss tackles Sunday afternoon. This play was something different, even special. Because Jones saw Poyer in front of him, but he didn’t see Bills cornerback Kyle Lewis coming from the side.
As he ambled, calculating his move to beat Poyer, Jones was blindsided. Lunging, Lewis reached out with his right hand, scooping Jones’ right ankle out from under him. Jones spun clockwise as he tumbled, a helicopter spiraling out of control.
“I wasn’t down,” Jones said. “I felt myself still up. So I kept trying to run.”
There were still 6 yards to the marker. Five yards until meeting Poyer. Jones planted his right hand at the 20, ball in his left. Poyer closed.
One yard before the marker, he rolled off Poyer without breaking stride. Somehow, back against Poyer’s back, Jones used the tackle to stop his fall. He kept running 6 more yards, getting 17 on a second-and-13 screen pass. The play extended a drive that gave the Packers a two-touchdown cushion in what became an easy-does-it, 22-0 win.
Jones finished the drive with a 3-yard touchdown, bowling over Bills safety Rafael Bush for the final yard. His elusiveness, though, left Bills defenders scattered in heaps across Lambeau Field.
Never more so than poor Poyer on the screen pass.
“I came back to the huddle,” Jones said, “and everybody was like, ‘How did you stay up?’ I was like, ‘I don’t know.’”
It wasn’t the only question Jones had people asking Sunday afternoon. The even greater mystery might be why Jones hasn’t already become the Packers' featured running back. It has been two games since he returned from a two-game suspension for violating the NFL’s substance-abuse policy. Not only has Jones shown no signs of rust, he has been the Packers' most exciting offensive player.
Jones led the Packers with 65 yards on just 11 carries Sunday, the same number of rushes as starting running back Jamaal Williams. With his 11, Williams got 27 yards.
In his two games, Jones has 107 rushing yards on 17 carries. That’s 6.3 yards every time Aaron Rodgers hands him the football. Williams and backup Ty Montgomery have 90 yards on 25 carries combined in the same two games.
That’s 3.6 yards – barely more than half – every time Rodgers hands them the football.
“He’s a special player,” left tackle David Bakhtiari said, “and he’s a playmaker. You want to find ways to get your playmakers on offense, get the ball in their hands. Because they can make magic happen.”
That Jones is the Packers' big-play tailback shouldn’t be surprising. A year ago, he had 125 yards in his first career start against the New Orleans Saints. Two weeks later, he had 131 yards at the Dallas Cowboys. In their careers, Williams and Montgomery have combined to exceed 125 yards in a game exactly once.
Given 20 carries each week, Jones might be one of the NFL’s most promising young players. A running back who could easily exceed 1,000 rushing yards in a season, maybe even flirt with 1,500. Jones waited until the Packers' third possession to get off the sideline Sunday. He took his first carry 30 yards.
So the question: Why isn’t Aaron Jones getting the ball more?
To his credit, Jones isn’t asking the question. At least not publicly. He was asked several times Sunday but, much like his running, never lost his balance. At his locker, Jones routinely said the right things.
“I just know Jamaal is the starter,” Jones said. “Whenever coach calls for one of us, we’re ready. That’s the way it worked out, so I wasn’t mad about that.”
On his role in the Packers' offense, Jones said: “I want to be a spark plug. Like a spark-plug player, and just create momentum.”
Too much of a spark is never a bad thing. There were times Sunday the Packers' offense certainly seemed to be searching for some sort of ignition. Yet they don’t appear poised to elevate Jones to that starting role, at least no time soon.
“Jones is a good changeup for us right now,” Rodgers said.
There’s virtue in keeping Jones fresh. Sunday was only the final day in September. It’s a long season ahead. The Packers need their best players to be at their best late in the season, during their stretch run.
And Aaron Jones is one of their best players.
It’s no different than how the Packers used to handle Eddie Lacy in the season’s opening month. Each year, the plan with Lacy was for the first four weeks to not subtract from the last four. Look at the production, and Lacy usually was at his best in December and January.
Jones seems to understand the benefits of a light workload early in the season.
“I feel like if we have three backs here,” he said, “it just helps you stay healthier the whole season and prolongs your career.”
True, fewer carries means less attrition. But this is a sacrifice Jones is making. Running backs get paid on yards and touchdowns. Right now, the only thing limiting Jones’ production is his number of carries.
To be fair, the Packers' offense genuinely is blessed with a deep, diverse backfield.
Williams is a hammer, pounding between tackles. On third-and-1 midway through the fourth quarter, Williams was stuffed 1 yard behind the line of scrimmage. He never quit, never stopped churning his legs, and somehow pushed a pile of four Bills defenders 2 yards. First down.
In Montgomery, the Packers have a matchup problem in the pass game. He showed it on third-and-4 late in the first quarter, slipping past Bills linebacker Matt Milano down the left sideline. Montgomery was all alone for a 43-yard reception, the longest of his career. It set up the Packers' first touchdown, a 3-yard pass from Rodgers to tight end Jimmy Graham.
Jones believes each running back fills different jobs.
“I feel like Ty is probably the best receiver,” Jones said. “Jamaal is more of a power back of us three. Then I think I’m a little bit more, like, wiggle.”
That wiggle can do an awful lot for an offense. It made a long day for the Bills' defense Sunday. Each time he gets the football, Jones can spring a big play.
Even if he doesn’t see the tackler coming.
“It’s one of those moments,” Packers inside linebacker Blake Martinez said, “you’re just like, ‘Wow.’ Those Aaron moments. You’ve got Aaron 12 and Aaron 33. It’s one of those Aaron moments, you’re just like, ‘Hmm, OK.’”