GREEN BAY - Before the snap, each tailback has a target. They call it an “aiming point,” and it exists to ensure a running back isn’t running blind.
As he takes the handoff, he’ll look first to his specific aiming point, a previously designated gap at the line of scrimmage. If that lane is clogged, the play mutates into what’s known as the outside zone. Instead of stalling in the backfield, the running back moves onto the next gap. If that’s clogged, he moves onto the next gap. If that isn’t open … you get the idea.
The scheme new Green Bay Packers head coach Matt LaFleur is implementing this offseason was designed to give ball carriers options. Get stuck with Plan A, try Plan B. Or maybe Plan C. Each play is multiple choice, and when it works correctly, there are multiple answers.
“The big deal about it,” running backs coach Ben Sirmans explained, “is you gotta make sure that you press (the gap) as much as possible, like to the heels of the linemen or the tight end, because that’s what’s going to create the flow in the defense. So if you cut it back too soon, then usually you’re not helping your guys up front. The linebackers and those guys can fall back and make a play.”
When LaFleur’s system hits the field this fall, it should be heaven’s playground for Packers running back Aaron Jones. He was born to run outside zone. A “great slasher,” as offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett called him, it’s easy to envision Jones’ speed and elusiveness mixed with a blocking scheme determined to open space on the field’s perimeter giving defenses fits this fall.
“I think this is going to be a good system for him,” Hackett said.
But what about Jones’ counterpart? The running back drafted one round earlier in 2017.
To this point in his career, Jamaal Williams has gotten snaps because he’s the better blocker, the more polished route runner, trusted on third down. He does all the ancillary jobs the position requires. Jones, by virtue of his career 5.5-yards-per-carry average, almost two yards more than Williams, is the more dynamic runner.
Watch Williams’ film, and it’s fair to wonder how his bruising, downhill style fits LaFleur’s scheme. He was born to bowl over tacklers, move the chains, three yards and a cloud of dust at a time. Hackett acknowledges certain aspects of the Packers’ new offense will present challenges, but believes Williams will become a better running back because of them.
“There’s obviously that downhill mentality,” Hackett said, “and then the counter for us is to be able to get him to that outside-zone world. It’s only going to help that inside zone and all those other downhill types of plays. I think anytime you have that ability to have that threat of both ... whenever you have a guy who just does one thing, it’s hard because when he goes in that’s how they’re going to want to stop it.
“I think the more you can do, the better.”
Williams is going to get snaps. He’s too valuable, too complete, to be stashed on the sideline. And every offense needs a road grader, someone who can clear a path when none exist, especially in short-yardage situations.
Power on the perimeter
To flourish, Williams must learn how to take his power-running style built on chewing up yards between the tackles to the field’s perimeter. That can be difficult, but it isn’t impossible. Just a year ago in Tennessee, Derrick Henry, himself a powerful, interior runner, had the best season of his young career. With the offense depleted by injuries, LaFleur, the Titans’ play caller in 2018, rode Henry to the cusp of the playoffs.
Henry exploded in the final month, rushing for 625 yards and eight touchdowns in the last five games. The Titans won four, not losing until the season finale against Indianapolis, which prevented them from reaching the postseason.
No two running backs are the same, and Williams is not Henry. The former fourth-round pick doesn’t have the pedigree of Henry, who won the Heisman Trophy in 2015 and was drafted in the second round. He’s not as big or as explosive an athlete. But Henry is proof a running back with Williams’ interior style can not only produce, but thrive, in LaFleur’s system.
“We look for guys who are violent, one-cut guys,” Sirmans said, “which kind of fits what Jamaal is. I mean, he’s not a guy who’s going to try to initiate a lot of different moves. It should fit him from that standpoint, because he does have the ability to explode off of his cuts and then get vertical downfield.
“Once you can do those things, then you can operate in this system.”
Jones isn’t the only Packers running back who used this offseason to transform his body. While Jones wanted to add muscle and shed body fat to become more durable, Williams wanted to become leaner. He’s 218 pounds this spring, with a goal of playing at 220 this fall. So Williams is not small — “everybody’s calling me slim,” he said, “I don’t like that" — but he feels lighter.
He hopes it’ll help him make the transition to the outside zone.
“I’m trying to see my agile side,” Williams said. “I can always run somebody over, but I feel like as long as I can show this double-edge sword, I’ll be good.”