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Jamaal Williams brings 'energy and juice' while filling in seamlessly for Aaron Jones

GREEN BAY - When the Green Bay Packers lost running back Aaron Jones to a calf strain late last week, the absence could have doomed many offenses.  

Jones, one of the NFL’s top playmakers, is a star in the Packers' backfield. A 1,000-yard runner last season, he has led the league in touchdowns since the start of 2019. Teams don’t just replace that kind of production. 

That coach Matt LaFleur hardly had to scramble with his game plan late in the week is perhaps the best example of backup running back Jamaal Williams’ value. 

“The only adjustments that we really had to make, and there weren’t many,” LaFleur said, “is just we’ve been running some of the two-halfback stuff with Jamaal and Aaron in the game, and those got kicked to AJ (Dillon).” 

Green Bay Packers running back Jamaal Williams (30) runs for a short gain as Houston Texans linebacker Zach Cunningham (41) defends during the first half of an NFL football game Sunday, Oct. 25, 2020, in Houston.

In other words, Williams played the same role Jones would have filled, something many NFL teams can’t afford to do, especially replacing such a dynamic starter. 

Williams’ ability to fill in seamlessly allowed the Packers to hold out hope Jones could recover by kickoff. While they planned for Jones to not play because of his injury by the time their plane left Green Bay, the Packers also decided to have Jones travel with the team. If Williams was unable to be used in the same game plan, the team might have needed to pivot earlier in the week. 

“It’s pretty much the same,” Williams said. “Nothing really changed because I feel we can all do the same thing, and everybody’s still got their different types, but at the same time we all can do everything on the field – catching the ball, running the ball, certain routes that we all can run.” 

Williams produced an increased role in Sunday’s 35-20 win against the Houston Texans. He had 19 carries, more than his three previous games combined, for 77 yards and a touchdown. He added four catches for 37 yards, posing a receiving threat that has also become a staple of Jones’ game. 

It’s remarkable considering the questions that surrounded Williams’ potentially diminished role this season. The Packers used their second-round pick to draft Dillon last spring. Dillon has been impressive in limited action, but his role has remained minimal as a rookie because of the depth of the Packers’ backfield. 

Even without Jones, Dillon had only five carries Sunday. He played only 14 snaps (22 percent), far behind Williams’ 55 (89 percent). Dillon’s lack of playing time may be the clearest sign of how well Williams has played this season. 

With so many other key players entering free agency this spring, it’s easy to forget Williams is also playing the final year of his contract. He isn’t an All-Pro left tackle like David Bakhtiari. He isn’t what LaFleur described last week as a “premier cornerback” like Kevin King. He doesn’t operate the offensive line calls like Corey Linsley. No, he isn’t Jones.  

It seems like a foregone conclusion Williams could move on after this season, but his value shouldn’t be forgotten. It was displayed not only Sunday, but late last week when the Packers lost one of the NFL’s top running backs for a game, and barely had to change a thing. 

“I love the energy and juice that he brings to our football team,” LaFleur said. “It’s infectious. And I think it brings everybody kind of with him.” 

Martin starts in debut

Rookie inside linebacker Kamal Martin didn’t miss a beat despite watching the first five games of the season while on injured reserve after having knee surgery at the end of training camp, as the fifth-round pick out of Minnesota was activated off injured reserve Sunday and started against the Houston Texans.

He practiced for two weeks before being activated.

“Just kind of playing it out by feel,” Martin said of his timeline. “Whenever I'm ready, and I guess we felt this past week was the right time to go. So it felt good.”

It looked like Martin would begin the year starting alongside Christian Kirksey, but the injury to his left knee required a delayed debut. He last played in a game Nov. 30, 2019, when his Golden Gophers lost to Wisconsin.

“It was just fun to get out there and play football again,” Martin said. “I hadn't played football in a while after I got hurt last year. So it was just fun to get out there and fly around and just play ball again, knowing what I do and play how I play.”

The 6-foot, 3-inch linebacker played 29 snaps on defense and nine on special teams in his NFL debut, He made six tackles and had one tackle for loss.

“I believe a lot of it’s mental,” Martin said of shaking off any rust. “You have to know what you’re doing outside of just the physical aspect of the game. Between the X’s and O’s, we all take a huge part and a huge pride in that as a defense. That was huge for us, just preparing and getting right for this week. So, it was fun.”

Burgess, Braden swap spots

Ben Braden was signed to the active 53-person roster Saturday on the Packers’ way to Houston to add depth to the offensive line, but he was released Monday to make room for newly signed linebacker James Burgess Monday. The Packers were given a roster exemption for Burgess through the weekend as he worked his way through the COVID-19 protocols.

The Packers have room on their practice squad for Braden should he clear waivers and the team choose to re-sign him. The team added Braden to the practice squad Wednesday.

Barnes escapes further injury

Rookie linebacker Krys Barnes, who initially injured a shoulder in New Orleans on Sept. 27, did not finish the game in Houston with what was deemed a shoulder injury after assisting on a tackle of Texans running back David Johnson on the first play of the third quarter. A league source indicated the injury was a bruise to the upper arm but the shoulder was not further affected.

The play was the last of a team-high eight tackles for Barnes, who also recorded his first career sack and had a tackle for loss in the Packers’ victory.

Lazard, Kirksey eligible to practice

Injured wide receiver Allen Lazard (core) and linebacker Christian Kirksey (pectoral) are eligible to return to practice this week, if medically cleared. They were placed on injured reserve Oct. 3 and have now missed three games and more than three weeks of time. Kirksey has been working off to the side for several weeks while Lazard worked on the side for all three practices last week in the Don Hutson Center.