DETROIT - Little, if anything, could prevent Aaron Jones from smiling late Sunday afternoon. In the cramped visitors’ locker room at Ford Field, his right hand looked no worse for wear after being stepped on; his right biceps was sore but not inoperative. In his trademark road sombrero and limited edition, home-made sweatshirt proclaiming, “The lights are too bright for you, get off the field,” he stood grinning in the floodlights of television cameras.
Jones didn’t look like someone who endured a pounding from the Detroit Lions over 27 touches and several collisions with defenders and the artificial turf that don’t officially count in the stat book, but will surely register when the adrenaline wears off Monday morning.
No, Jones smiled, entertained media and staff and then well-wishers in the hall outside a victorious Packers locker room — after a game in which he turned in a vintage performance to cap a regular season that marked his breakout as one of the league’s top offensive threats.
His 100 rushing yards were not a season high. Nor were his two catches for 43 receiving yards. He did not score a touchdown, preventing him from tying or setting the single-season franchise record of 20, or challenging Carolina’s Christian McCaffery for the 2019 league lead.
But he was given a season-high 25 carries and he averaged 4.0 yards per rush. They were mostly tough runs against a banged-up and maligned Lions defense that played with bad intentions. Of those carries, 16 went for four yards or less.
He had just two explosive runs, of 11 and 14 yards. So, he played the role of a heavy hitter and eventually was the one who delivered the knockout blow to Detroit late in the fourth quarter.
And he did it on a play head coach Matt LaFleur admitted wasn’t really a huge part of the game plan.
Following an 11-yard completion to Marquez Valdes-Scantling, Aaron Rodgers huddled the offense up for a first-and-10 play at the Packers’ 49-yard line with 45 seconds left.
“Are you boys ready for a screen?”
Jones, of course, was.
“Go make a play, kid.”
If the smile is ubiquitous for Jones, so was his response to Rodgers — a response given to anyone who speaks to him.
After the snap left guard Elgton Jenkins briefly engaged Lions defensive end Romeo Okwara. But Okwara shot through to push Rodgers quickly to his right. Too quickly.
“I probably could have been a bit slower on the screen,” Jenkins admitted.
Jones, center Lucas Patrick, right guard Billy Turner and right tackle Jared Veldheer were all muddled together to the right of Rodgers as he extended the play to evade Okwara’s rush.
Jones caught a glimpse of his quarterback in trouble and cut his pattern short – right in front of Patrick.
“I found an open window, and I don’t know how A-Rod got me the ball, but he did,” Jones said.
Patrick’s right foot clipped Jones’ left heel, however, sending the center sprawling belly-first to the turf. Jones caught his feet behind a pulling Jenkins and scooted past the block on safety Miles Killebrew.
“It’s so interesting to watch him run from behind because he’ll go travel 40, 50 yards to run 31,” said Patrick, who watched No. 33 weave away from him from on the ground. “He’s so smooth. People underestimate him and actually how long his arms are for his size, and he can just kind of stay at top speed. He’s a special kid.”
Veldheer pushed his man wide, so he had to watch it finish out on the video screen.
“That was awesome. That was awesome,” he said of the screen play. “We were primed for something like that to happen. I think everybody knew that there was going to be a big break and we just had to keep playing the next play until the big break happened.”
Jones ran for 31 yards, shedding a tackle attempt from Tracy Walker at the Detroit 30 to gain precious ground to the 20.
“When we were doing our game-planning, screens were not very successful versus this group because they, a lot of times they put five guys on the line of scrimmage,” LaFleur said. “They’re dropping those two outside guys and so we didn’t feel great about the screen game. It was the first time, I think, in my career where we had probably the fewest amount of screens going into a game plan.”
Three plays later, Mason Crosby won the game with a field goal from 33 yards out to give the Packers a first-round bye.
Without injured running mate Jamaal Williams, Jones was going to get heavy work Sunday. Tyler Ervin had one carry and Dexter Williams had two. Ervin was targeted three times in the pass game and caught one ball.
This was Jones’ show.
“Inch by inch by inch — that’s why it seems like he’s slow and all of a sudden he bursts one,” Patrick said.
“We know if we keep giving it to him, eventually a big play is going to happen.”
And with Rodgers completing just 49% of his 55 throws, with deep shot after deep shot finding the field and not the hands of pass catchers, the Packers needed every bit of Jones’ 143 yards.
Near the end of his session in front of the microphones, he smiled and laughed.
“I’m ready to play another one.”