Packers could ride resurgent Aaron Jones down the stretch
GREEN BAY - Aaron Jones was too fast. Sounds like a nice problem to have. For him, it was just a problem.
When the Green Bay Packers running back watched his film this week, dissecting his slump over the past couple games, he saw a running back playing overzealously. Impatiently. “My first step,” Jones explained, “I was so jolty.” If he didn’t see it, running backs coach Ben Sirmans made sure he did.
Together, they scoured play by play, until Jones realized what needed to be done.
“If you slow it down,” he said, “you’re able to let things develop in front of you, and you’re able to see things. It’s something that coach Sirmans has brought to me, and I’m thankful for it. Because it definitely showed out there, and I was able to read and run wherever I wanted.”
Yes, Jones did whatever he wanted Sunday in the Packers’ 20-15 win against Washington. He was about the only one. His 192 yards from scrimmage accounted for more than half of the Packers’ 341 total yards. Without him, it's hard to imagine what the Packers' offense might have been able to muster.
Jones rushed for a season-high 134 yards on 16 carries, including a season-long 42-yard scamper he nearly broke for a long touchdown. He also had six catches on seven targets for 58 yards, including a 25-yard reception down the right sideline when he jumped up to catch the football like a receiver to convert a third-and-14.
This was the Aaron Jones show.
That it came in the wake of back-to-back subpar outings had to be promising. At San Francisco and the New York Giants — the Packers’ two games since their late-season bye — Jones combined for 69 yards from scrimmage. He was kept out of the end zone both games. That drought ended with a 4-yard touchdown run in Sunday’s first quarter, his 15th this season.
Every player, even the great ones, can hit a rut during the season. What separates them is how they handle it, how long the rut remains. Early Sunday, it was clear Jones’ rut was over. Everyone sensed it, including rookie guard Elgton Jenkins, who hoisted Jones in the air after one first-quarter run.
“(He) came and picked me up one play after a long run,” Jones said, “and I’m like, ‘Man, I’m just having fun out here.’ He’s like, ‘Let’s keep doing it.’”
That would be the natural idea, of course. Whenever Jones had the football Sunday, the Packers' offense ignited along with him. Jones was the running back for both of their touchdown drives to start the game, and three of their four scoring drives including field goals.
Hard to say no to that.
Nobody who has followed the Packers should be surprised their offense was better with him. Yet coach Matt LaFleur’s two-back system remained in place. Backup Jamaal Williams got seven carries Sunday, and the difference was obvious.
Jones averaged 8.4 yards on his carries. Williams averaged 3.4.
“Maybe,” quarterback Aaron Rodgers offered, “the line was blocking a little better on some of those runs that Jonesy had compared to Jamaal.”
The bigger difference was one running back with game-changing elusiveness and breakaway speed, and another more reliant on his offensive line and power style designed to get small chunks at a time.
Williams showed his value Sunday. In San Francisco, LaFleur called timeout before a fourth-and-1 to get Jones on the field. The play went nowhere, Jones stuffed for no gain. When the same situation came Sunday, Williams stayed on the field. He got 7 yards, barreling downhill to move the chains.
Williams’ power run style shouldn’t be overlooked, especially for a team that plays late-season games outdoors in frigid temperatures and inclement weather. He’s a fine complement to Jones, capable of spelling the Packers' top running back with more than serviceable play. Rodgers was quick to note Williams caught a touchdown pass in four straight games earlier this season. He’s also the more polished blocker in pass protection.
“He deserves to be on the field and have a role,” Rodgers said. “Jonesy is not the biggest back, but even if he was, in the days of Eddie Lacy we weren’t trying to roll out 30 carries a game for Ed. I just think you need those guys fresh through and into the new year, through December and into the new year. I think we’ve done a good job of managing that.”
That LaFleur has managed Jones’ workload well so far this season is a testament to the first-year coach. Jones has been one of the NFL’s top emerging talents this fall, all while staying healthy. After his first two seasons ended on injured reserve because of knee injuries, Jones played his 13th game of the season Sunday.
The time is coming, though, when load management will give way to survive and advance.
That the premium on keeping Jones fresh continued against a dreadful team is understandable. Now, the Packers end with three straight games against NFC North opponents, two with winning records.
If the Packers aren’t quite in the survive-and-advance portion of their season, they’re clearly playing for a top-two seed and first-round bye. New Orleans’ loss to the 49ers on Sunday catapulted the Packers into the NFC’s second seed. There are enticing carrots to play for down the stretch, but the Packers might need to win out in order to reach them.
Each game carries the weight of seeding implications. Which is why, if the Packers increase their urgency over the regular season’s final three weeks, it might be time to make each game the Aaron Jones show.
“For us to be at our best when we need to be at our best towards the end of the season,” LaFleur said, “it is important (to use both running backs). This is not a sprint, it’s a marathon. But certainly as the season winds down or comes closer (to the end), we’re going to do whatever we have to do to make sure that we have our best guys out there and in position to help us win.”