Packers' running back tandem 'got shifty' on Bears' vaunted defense
CHICAGO - Two yards from the goal line, all Aaron Jones could see was the open field in front of him, unfolding like a red carpet.
It wasn’t easy getting there. Jones initially caught Aaron Rodgers’ pass midway through Sunday’s third quarter with his back to the Chicago Bears defense.' He was 2 yards behind the line of scrimmage when safety Tashaun Gipson Sr. wrapped both arms around Jones’ ankles. The Green Bay Packers running back stepped out of that tackle, leaving Gipson grasping at air, the way Jones does when safeties try to tackle him in the open field.
As he approached the goal line for a 12-yard touchdown that opened a definitive lead in the Packers’ 24-14 win, their fifth straight, Jones was in the clear. Or so he thought. What Jones didn’t see was Bears defensive lineman Robert Quinn barreling toward him, a freight train determined to run him down before the end zone.
BOX SCORE: Packers 24, Bears 14
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“I saw him originally,” Jones said, “after I caught the ball and made the stiff arm and headed outside. I thought I had kind of left him. Once I got behind Marcedes (Lewis’ block), I was like, ‘I’m going to score.’
“But I didn’t know he was that close.”
Jones was right. He did score, giving the Packers a commanding 17-7 lead with 6:09 left in the third quarter. The way he entered the end zone, though – a little extra flare with a leaping, twisting dive through the air – stole the breath of every Packers coach, teammate and fan who knew better.
"A little unlike Jonesy,” Rodgers said. “He always kind of finishes those things.” Instead, Jones found himself in the middle of a Bears sandwich, Quinn catching him just across the goal line while linebacker Roquan Smith collided from the backside.
The play, a textbook reminder to not celebrate a touchdown too early, left Jones feeling sheepish. “He came over to me right after he scored,” coach Matt LaFleur said, “and apologized.” It also provided some unintentional comedy, emphasizing just how much Jones was ahead of the Bears' defense all day.
Even when he stepped off the accelerator, coasting to end a play instead of finishing strong, Jones was still a step or two too fast for one of the NFL’s best defensive fronts.
The Bears, like most defenses, entered Sunday determined to remove Davante Adams from the Packers’ game plan. They accomplished that better than most – Adams still caught four passes for 89 yards – but were left exposed elsewhere. Jones made them pay with 76 rushing yards on 13 carries while adding 34 receiving yards on four catches, including the touchdown.
It’s the fourth time in five games Jones has had more than 100 yards of offense. The lone game in that stretch when he didn’t hit the century mark came two weeks ago against Pittsburgh. Jones had 99 yards of offense in that game. In his fifth season, Jones has never been a more versatile playmaker, even scoring touchdowns on plays that aren’t designed for him.
On his 12-yard score Sunday, Jones thought he might stay in the backfield as an extra blocker if Gipson came on a safety blitz. When he didn’t, Jones leaked out into the left flat, giving Rodgers an extra receiver.
“I saw A-Rod going through his reads,” Jones said. “He had nowhere to go, so I leaked out. I kind of knew where (Gipson) was at based on when he dropped. A-Rod threw me on my inside. So I caught it, put it on my inside hand and just used my stiff arm.”
Jones’ playmaking is nothing new. This season, he has been joined with another highlight machine out of the Packers' backfield.
Together, Jones and second-year tailback AJ Dillon are becoming the backbone of this Packers offense. Dillon carried 11 times for 59 yards Sunday, the third straight time he and Jones have combined for more than 20 carries and at least 129 rushing yards in a game. Dillon had the most impressive run Sunday, changing direction in the backfield with a sudden cut into the hole and making Gipson miss in the open field (it was a rough day tackling for the Bears safety) on a 36-yard carry in the second quarter.
“Oh, he got shifty,” Jones said, laughing as he recalled the run afterward. “He definitely got shifty. So originally, I told him on the sideline, when the play happened I didn’t see that cut. When they put it on the big screen, I could see that cut, and I was like, ‘Oh, AJ. You’ve got some wiggle to you, huh?’ He pushes me, and I push him, and we bring the best out of each other.
“We just try to be a spark. In our room, we say, ‘If we can be a spark, we’ll definitely help this offense get going.’ So that’s one thing we try to do every time we get out there.”
After a slow start to their season, the Packers are showing the type of running game LaFleur envisions for his offense. A running game that makes everything else on the field work, from staying ahead of the chains to setting up the play-action pass. Eventually, it might even keep defenses honest against Rodgers and Adams.
That the Packers are showing such ground production before the weather even turns cold must be a good sign for things to come. A run game like this wins in January. It should only become more dynamic as the offensive line becomes healthier.
The Packers lost starting center Josh Myers to a knee injury on Sunday’s opening drive, but LaFleur said he does not believe it will end the rookie’s season. Left tackle David Bakhtiari is eligible to return from the physically unable to perform list next week. His return will slide Elgton Jenkins back down to left guard, where he was a Pro Bowler last season. Together, Bakhtiari and Jenkins might give the Packers the best left side of any offensive line in the NFL, paving the way for Jones and Dillon.
“The versatility that both of those guys have,” LaFleur said, “not only in the run game but in the pass game, and what they bring to this team, is really special. They complement each other so well.”
Jones only has a pair of rushing touchdowns this season, but he has caught four scores from Rodgers. He set a new career high Sunday for receiving touchdowns in a season, beating his previous mark in only six games. Of course, his touchdown almost ended with Jones appearing as silly as he made the Bears look.
He'll know what not to do next time.
“I heard about it when I got to the sideline,” Jones said, smiling. “I just was like, ‘I’ll finish the play. I won’t relax next time.’ It won’t happen again.”