Matt LaFleur's gamble to rest Aaron Jones paid off for the Packers in must-win vs. Vikings

Lori Nickel
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
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GREEN BAY − Here’s how coach Matt LaFleur won another must-win game in Week 17 for the Green Bay Packers and got another 100-yard game and 1,000-yard season out of a pretty banged-up running back, Aaron Jones, at the same time.

LaFleur took a chance, rested Jones, opting for the greater good and the bigger picture − and then second-guessed himself about it the entire time.

Don’t believe it?

A week ago, on Christmas Day, the Packers won a big game by upsetting Miami in Florida, and it was hard to find Jones, who had just six carries the entire game.

The spotty handoffs were unexpected. Of course, Jones has been battling a lingering ankle injury for weeks, but he had 17 carries the game before that, in a Week 15 must-win against the Rams. So in the Week 16 must-win at Miami, it looked like just another example of Green Bay favoring the passing game over the run, as it is prone to do sometimes.

Not the case.

Green Bay Packers running back Aaron Jones runs for 31 yards against the Minnesota Vikings at Lambeau Field

With all that LaFleur has on his plate in resuscitating this 8-8 team on this current four-game winning streak, he’s still very much dialed in to the health and wellness status of his veteran running back. LaFleur took a risk by nursing Jones along in Miami. The risk was not go with his star and lose the game; the risk was to lose the faith of the star by not going to him more.

“He kind of apologized,” Jones said Sunday night. “He was like, ‘I want to get you the ball. Every time I turned (around), I didn’t know if you were up or down.’

“I was like ‘Coach, we won, that’s all that matters.‘”

Now fast forward to Sunday, Week 17 and Green Bay’s 41-17 New Year's Day demolition of Minnesota.

Jones exploded for 111 yards on 14 carries – an average of 7.9 a carry. It was his first 100-yard game since Nov. 13 against Dallas, and his fifth of the season.

“I feel like the way they played me last week kind of helped me,” Jones said. “Gave me time in recovery a little bit, helped me be fresh.

“Coach LaFleur was like, ‘I want to keep you healthy.’ Coach LaFleur does do a lot of things to protect me and keep me healthy. I know that − so I have nothing but the utmost respect for him, because a lot of people aren’t like that; they’ll try to wear you down and get everything they can out of you.

“He's more of a ‘I am going to look out for you, I am going to take care of you’ coach. That’s special to me and I thank him for that.”

Jones looked perfect in the second quarter, especially on his longest run of the night, a 31-yarder on the outside zone to the right. Tight end Marcedes Lewis told Jones to be ready on the third-and-1 call.

“Cedes was like, ‘hey, I got you,‘” Jones said. “’I will lead; follow me and, if he hops outside, you put your foot in the ground. If he doesn’t, you stay.’ We have a lot of those conversations. It was beautiful. But it was all set up by the blocking unit.”

Jones now has 1,073 yards for the season, his third 1,000-yard season of his career and third in the past four seasons.

“That’s a milestone for a lot of backs – 1,000 yards, to reach in a season,” Jones said. “To accomplish that feat and do it in 16 games – they added (to the schedule) to 17, I actually did it in 16 – feels amazing.”

Jones credited his blockers and the coaching staff.

And yet, he still has only two rushing touchdowns on the season. The Packers apparently are going to stick to big running back AJ Dillon for that role, as they did again in the fourth quarter when he scored inside the 5 with a 2-yard run. He now has seven rushing touchdowns for the year.

Jones was on the sidelines for that play, but knew the option was coming to his teammate.

“If they give it to you pad level, you know nobody can stop you down here,” Jones said. “I look forward to him getting into those situations and being successful. That’s what he does. He’s a big back and he’s hard to bring down.

“If that’s what they want to go with, I’m 100% fine with that. We’re winning, getting points on the board. That’s all that matters. We’re getting in the end zone, we’re getting 6. My touchdowns will come at some point. That’s not the biggest thing to me as long as we’re winning games. We’re converting. We’re actually getting into the end zone, which AJ as been doing. I’m proud of my guy.”

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The Packers, once 4-8, are now one more must-win away from making the playoffs and Jones was one of many victorious players who said that they never counted themselves out.

A reporter asked: What do you say to the people who counted you out?

To which Jones responded with a giggle: “They don't know how to count.”

A running back who is feeling healthy and recovered, and a coach who is somehow looking out for him while fighting for his playoff life. It’s just another incredible chapter of these 2023 Packers.

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