Aaron Jones sets tone on first play as ground game brings balance to Packers' offense
GREEN BAY – The first play of the game Sunday for the Green Bay Packers was borne out of their play in the season opener against Chicago, and it portended what was to come throughout the 21-16 victory over Minnesota.
To open the game, tight end Marcedes Lewis set up just off right tackle Bryan Bulaga’s hip and Aaron Jones was alone behind Aaron Rodgers. Tight end Robert Tonyan motioned in tight next to left tackle David Bakhtiari.
Minnesota defensive coordinator George Edwards responded to the Packers’ opening personnel group with his base 4-3 defense and Cover 2 coverage from his safeties. At the snap, Lewis cut across the line of scrimmage to his left as the entire line and Tonyan crashed down the line to their right. Rodgers turned his shoulders immediately to hand off to Jones.
The entire Vikings front seven followed.
By the time the linebackers realized it was play-action, Davante Adams was already behind them and free and clear of the dropped safeties.
“The threat of having (Jones) back there, I think that had something (to do with it),” Adams said. “Even though we didn’t run the ball the way we could have last week, they knew what we were capable of doing, so they had to respect it.”
Adams’ route was designed specifically to beat the coverage they knew the Vikings would present, but the Packers were also confident in the action despite having just rushed for 2.1 yards per carry against the Bears. The Packers believed their Chicago tape would force the Vikings to bite just enough to open that play — and the offense — up.
“It means a lot knowing they respect the run game that much, especially after the week we had last week. That’s a big thing,” Jones said.
The opening call set the tone for the game thereafter as the Packers handed the ball off 32 times for 144 yards for 4.4 yards per carry. There was nearly a 50-50 balance on the ledger for head coach Matt LaFleur as Rodgers dropped back 37 times.
“It’s just us helping out the pass,” running back Jamaal Williams said. “If you can do both — I mean it’s great to be good at one and be able to do that all the time — but defenses are always looking to try and stop that now. Once you’re balanced, then that’s when you really put the pressure on defenses. They’ve got to choose.”
After that first play, LaFleur worked in the run game with a non-traditional mix as he put Jones and Williams in together. The first rush was initially called a pass as Rodgers slung the ball behind the line of scrimmage down to Jones for a six-yard gain after he went in motion. After handing the ball to Jones for a 15-yard run, a similar motion at the Vikings’ 15 opened up a screen lane for Williams. He took it in for the Packers' first touchdown of the game.
It was a new personnel package the Packers unveiled, designed specifically to get the defense on its heels regarding who may carry, or catch, the ball.
While Rodgers went 9-for-10 for 134 yards and two touchdowns in the first quarter, the Packers ran it seven times for 33 yards. They ran it another 11 times in the second and continued pressing the line of scrimmage — even if at times it didn’t net first downs.
But in the fourth quarter, with the Packers up 21-16 with 3 minutes, 14 seconds to go and needing to salt the game away — the ball was going to be in Jones’ hands.
After a two-yard run to open the drive, Jones started out running right on second-and-8. Right guard Billy Turner sealed his defender and on the backside center Corey Linsley and left guard Lane Taylor cleaned out theirs, giving Jones an alley. He shot upfield for 13 yards and a key first down. A four-yard run by Jones was followed by a 7-yard completion to Adams and the Packers were able to run the clock down to six seconds, effectively sealing the game.
“By that point those guys are tired, they’re don’t want to run sideline to sideline,” Jones said. “You got those big d-linemen inside and they’re having to run to the numbers and a lot of time late in the game they’re late and you can put your foot in the ground and get vertical.”
Jones finished with a career-high 23 carries for 116 yards (5.0). It was the fourth 100-yard rushing game of his career. He also scored the Packers’ third touchdown from two yards out.
Williams rushed nine times for 28 yards.
Linsley smiled at the idea that Jones perhaps answered some questions as to whether he could handle such a workload.
“Let’s keep answering it,” the center said. “Let’s keep answering it.”
The two backs said the line moved well in unison Sunday, and the alleyways in the zone scheme were much cleaner than the week previous. Linsley noted an excellent practice week up front, and the feeling offensively was this was a truer showing of the run game in terms of the end results.
But they knew it had to look good enough from the start in Chicago to even set up the hot start and strong finish Sunday.
“We watched the Chicago film and we knew what to fix and we had some things that were manageable to fix and I think we fixed a lot of 'em, at least improved on them,” Linsley said. “So we made those improvements. Because we made those improvements that opens up our whole offense.”