GREEN BAY – On his 22nd carry Sunday, punishment he’d never before taken, Aaron Jones had one man to beat. He’d just cut back against the grain, running left as his offensive line blocked right, the type of outside-zone concept designed to get a dynamic ball carrier into open space.
There was just him and Minnesota Vikings safety Harrison Smith. In the middle of the field, Smith went low for Jones’ waist. That’s when the Green Bay Packers running back felt it.
Smith’s tackle slowed Jones enough for Vikings safety Anthony Harris to recover. From the side, Harris blasted Jones high, flipping him over Smith. The impact sent Jones’ feet over his head, shoulders pounding into Lambeau Field’s grass. It was the kind of hit you don’t want a franchise running back — especially one with Jones’ checkered injury history — absorbing in any game, but especially in September.
Jones, speaking at his locker Wednesday, said he felt fine. In fact, he bounced off the field after Harris’ hit, straight to his feet like he was on a trampoline, almost as if to show anyone holding their breath he was all right. Jones got another carry on the next snap, his career-high 23rd and final.
“It looked bad,” Jones said, “but I really just got hit on a low, and then up here. It wasn’t bad.”
Still, it exemplified why Jones’ usage is so scrutinized on a weekly basis. He is an irreplaceable playmaker in the Packers’ offense, a running back, Aaron Rodgers said, who “really has the speed to take it the distance every time he touches the ball.” He’s also lost the war against attrition so far in his young career. Four games missed as a rookie. Four missed last year. Both seasons ending on injured reserve.
It’s a high-stakes risk each time Jones’ workload increases. Push his touches over 20 in a game, and the Packers could be walking a tightrope with no net. That’s why it was surprising to see Jones’ touches balloon to 27, including four catches for 34 yards, in his second game with new coach Matt LaFleur.
In Jones’ career, he’d touched the football 20 times in a game just four times. He’d never gotten 21.
"I think each game can dictate how much he's going to carry the ball,” LaFleur said. “But I think all in all, I mean, that is a pretty physical position, and we'd like to keep a good balance between him and Jamaal (Williams), because we think Jamaal is a pretty darn good back as well. So we'd like to even out those touches a little bit."
Jones, notoriously reluctant to request more carries, certainly isn’t going to ask for fewer. To this date, perhaps the only thing keeping the Packers' third-year running back from stardom is his relatively light workload. Jones led the NFL in his first two seasons with 5.5 yards per carry. He had his fourth 100-yard game Sunday, remarkable for a running back who had never before carried 20 times in a game.
It’s not surprising to hear LaFleur suggest Jones could be on a pitch count. The most relevant gauge, though, might be how many hard hits Jones absorbs. LaFleur’s outside zone is designed to stretch the ball carrier beyond the tackle, something the Packers did effectively with Jones against the Vikings. They also lined up and motioned Jones around the field as a receiver. His four catches Sunday were one shy of a career high.
In both cases, Jones was able to get into the open field, where he’s less likely to take a hard hit.
“He’s a slashing runner,” Rodgers said, “who’s very slippery. He doesn’t take a lot of squared-up shots, for a guy who’s not a huge back.”
A year ago, Jones had a chance to reach 1,000 rushing yards on fewer than 200 carries — a benchmark that’s hard to do — before a sprained MCL landed him on injured reserve in December. After the season, Jones stated one goal for 2019. It wasn’t 1,000 yards, or double-digit touchdowns. No, Jones said he wanted to play all 16 games.
He takes the questions about his durability personally. When Jones said “I feel like I’m slept on a little bit” in camp, it wasn’t hard to decipher what he meant. To have a game with an extensive workload like Sunday, he said, was important.
“It’s really meaningful,” Jones said, “to show that, hey, I can handle that. My hard work has paid off, and everything I’ve been saying isn’t just talk. I’m proving it, and it’s actions. I’m going to continue to work at it, and last 16 games.
“In football, you’re going to take some shots. It’s just how tough you are, if you can get back up after them.”
The Packers need Jones at his best in December and January, when they’ll theoretically be making their late-season push for the playoffs. To get there, they need to win games in September, October and November. Jones gives them the best chance to win. He’s the only weapon in the Packers’ offense near the same level as top receiver Davante Adams.
LaFleur, like Mike McCarthy before him, will need to figure out how best to balance Jones’ playmaking ability with the necessity of preserving him over 16 games. Can Jones get to December if he’s touching the football 20 times, and taking close to that many hits, each week?
“Definitely,” Jones said, “I feel like I can.”
That doesn’t mean he should.
“I feel good,” Jones said. “But any way the team is going to use me, I’ll be ready. If they’re going to give it to me that many times, I’ll be ready. However they need me, however they want to use me, I’ll be ready.”