Analysis: Packers' Aaron Jones can find holes that others miss
Anyone who has watched the Green Bay Packers the last year and a half knows they’re a better team when Aaron Jones is on the field.
He’s an explosive, dynamic runner, that much is obvious.
But what really separates him from the running backs who have come through the Packers' organization in the last decade is his vision, which he demonstrated time and again Sunday when he rushed for 145 yards on 15 carries in the Packers’ 31-12 win over Miami.
Jones, like the other top backs in the NFL, has the vision and patience to see where the holes are. Of course, his quickness and acceleration allow him to take advantage of what he sees. But there are other backs who are just as fast and quick as Jones. His vision is what separates him.
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What’s surprising about Jones is that he looks like an outside runner — his listed weight is 208 pounds, but he says he’s actually about 198. Backs that size usually are change-of-pace runners who try to outrun defenses to the corner.
But Jones is the rare small back who’s most effective running between the tackles because of his vision and cutback ability. That’s where he did all his damage Sunday. And we’re not talking about his 67-yard run up the middle late in the first quarter. That play was blocked exceptionally well. We’re talking about his other carries, where he picked up yards that many other backs would have missed, plays where he gained more than was blocked.
Like on his first carry of the game, at 10:54 of the first quarter. This was a typical play for him. It was designed as an outside zone to the left, meaning a run outside the left tackle. But a couple steps after taking the handoff, Jones hit a pile of players that made it tough to get outside.
Instead of just putting his head down and trying to push through for a couple yards, Jones in his peripheral vision saw the cutback lane behind center Corey Linsley, planted his foot and took the ball upfield. What probably would have been a couple-yard gain became a 12-yarder and a new set of downs.
Some NFL teams define explosive runs as gains of 12 yards or more. Jones’ vision helped turn a pedestrian run into an explosive gain.
Contrast that with Jamaal Williams’ first run on the night, with 8:12 left in the second quarter. Williams is a tough, physical back whose 40 time (4.59 seconds) isn’t much worse than Jones’ (4.56). But on this play, Williams took a handoff on an inside run to the left, ran straight through the A gap into a pile of players and plowed his way to a two-yard gain.
Jones is a more patient runner, and you can almost guarantee he’d have waited that extra half-beat as a hole opened to the right while he approached the line of scrimmage. You can almost guarantee he’d have eked out four or five yards by stepping that way, and with one broken tackle of a defender being partially blocked he might have busted it for a big play.
Actually, one of Jones’ best runs of the night was on a similar kind of play but in a different circumstance, a third-and-one right after the two-minute warning in the second quarter. The short-yardage play started as an inside zone run to the left, but almost as he took the handoff Jones saw that gap closing down, so he bounced back to the A gap (between the center and guard) on the right side and slipped between a couple tacklers for a three-yard gain that converted the first down.
Those kinds of runs help win games. On a play that looked like it might get stuffed, his vision helped keep the drive alive.
Similarly, he had a six-yard run on the Packers’ first play of the third quarter that was hardly a heart stopper but that turned what might have been a couple-yard gain into a six-yarder that put the Packers in a great down-and-distance, second and four. That’s what they’re looking for to help Aaron Rodgers, favorable downs and distances.
This one was a toss left that again was cut off from getting outside. Jones again saw a lane in his peripheral vision, cut sharply behind Linsley and picked up a nice gain on a play that showed little promise. It wasn’t spectacular, but runs like that keep an offense humming by setting up a second-and-four that could be a run or pass.
Yes, Jones is the Packers’ most explosive back. But it’s his vision that makes that explosiveness matter.
Center of attention
Linsley is quietly having a strong season at center and had one of his better games Sunday against the Dolphins.
One of the big questions with Linsley a couple years ago was his durability after he missed most of training camp and the first seven games of 2016 because of a hamstring injury. But going back to his return that season, he has missed only one snap since, and that was because of an equipment issue in a game at Chicago late in ’16.
More than that, he has been a key to the Packers’ run game, and Sunday played a big role in providing Jones cutback lanes on the running back’s big night.
Linsley is an effective run blocker because he has the athletic ability to get out on linebackers and get a piece of them in space, and though he’s not big for an offensive lineman (301 pounds), he’s strong enough to wrestle with bigger defenders at the line of scrimmage.
He threw one of the key blocks on Jones’ 67-yard run up the middle when he blocked down on defensive tackle Sylvester Williams and walled off the 328-pounder from collapsing the hole. Byron Bell and Bryan Bulaga had a key double-team block on the other side, as well, and that gave Jones a big gap that he ran through untouched.
If the Packers were having a better season, Linsley might be in the running for the Pro Bowl.
» Backup outside linebackers Reggie Gilbert and Kyler Fackrell outplayed starters Clay Matthews and Nick Perry. Fackrell and Gilbert each had a sack — granted, both were against backup Sam Young, but Matthews and Perry played against him as well — and combined for seven tackles. Perry has been a non-factor this season coming off ankle surgery. He didn’t even make the stat sheet Sunday and left the game late in the second quarter because of a knee injury.
» The Packers did well reaching deep into their secondary because of injuries as the game went on, though playing against Brock Osweiler had to help. Undrafted rookie Raven Greene played 30 snaps at safety, made one big play when he sacked Osweiler on a blitz late in the third quarter and missed another when he dropped an interception in the second quarter.