In 2007, Ryan Grant rose from the bottom of the depth chart to provide the Green Bay Packers with the run game that had been AWOL the first half of the season.
He was the missing piece that helped the Packers finish with the best record in the NFC and advance to the conference championship.
In 2010, James Starks returned from a season-long hamstring injury to provide in the playoffs the run threat the Packers had lacked all season. He wasn’t a star, yet played a major role in the Packers’ unexpected run to the Super Bowl title.
Now there’s Aaron Jones. The fifth-round draft pick made his first NFL start Sunday at Dallas, and voila! The 2017 Packers suddenly have a running game, and Aaron Rodgers has a new best friend.
In the Packers’ 35-31 win over the Cowboys, Jones demonstrated the difference a good running back can make for an offense that already has a top quarterback. He consistently picked up yardage (6.6-yard average, 19 carries), and more importantly, showed traits that were missing in the Packers’ offense through the first four games.
The Packers, for instance, have a good receiving corps, but by NFL standards, it’s not explosive. It wins more with good route running and the ability to go get the ball in the air. That includes tight end Martellus Bennett, who doesn’t stretch the seams but is a huge target and good athlete.
Jones, though, instantly has made the Packers a more dynamic offense.
Now, let’s be clear, nobody’s anointing him an All-Pro. He’s done it for one game — really one and a half, if you go back to the second half of the previous week against Chicago. Over the course of a long season, he has to stay healthy and protect the ball. An injury or a couple fumbles could scuttle the whole thing.
But he doesn’t have to be a star to make the Packers better. And it’s pretty clear Jones adds something as a ball carrier that injured Ty Montgomery (ribs) and former No. 2 Jamaal Williams don’t have.
For instance, on the fourth-and-one Jones converted in the third quarter, he flowed, then planted his foot and exploded upfield to get the first down. Earlier in the third quarter, he had a 13-yard run deep in Dallas territory where he started hard up the middle, saw an opening gap to his right, planted his foot and was fast enough to take advantage of second-level blocks by tackle Bryan Bulaga and receiver Jordy Nelson.
That’s a pure running back. And that makes him Rodgers’ best friend. The best way to slow the pass rush and open up seams in the passing game is a bona fide run threat, and if Jones can keep this up, Rodgers has that now.
It showed Sunday on Rodgers’ 10-yard touchdown pass to Jordy Nelson in the fourth quarter. It was as easy a score as you’ll see, because Cowboys safety Byron Jones bit hard on the run fake and left Nelson untouched and covered.
SILVERSTEIN: Packers offense runs smoothly on winning TD drive
On Rodgers’ 18-yard scramble that set up the game-winning touchdown, both inside linebackers, Damontre Moore and Anthony Hitchens, went with Jones on an outlet route, which opened the left half of the field for Rodgers’ run. Rodgers didn’t fake a handoff, and it looked like one of the linebackers was supposed to spy Rodgers. But they were so fixed on stopping Jones that both abandoned the middle of the field and went with him.
Even on Bennett’s improvised 33-yard catch in the third quarter, the man covering him, again the safety Jones, was looking in the backfield for a handoff as Bennett broke from the line of scrimmage. That allowed Bennett to get behind him, and the tight end kept running down the sideline after Rodgers broke the pocket.
Jones won’t average 6.6 yards every game. Dallas’ defense has had its share of problems stopping the run, and there will be much tougher tests down the road. But as long as the 208-pounder stays durable and secures the ball, he can give Rodgers something that was missing.
One big stop
The Packers’ defensive play that will get all the attention was Damarious Randall’s interception return for a touchdown in the fourth quarter. Turnovers that put points on the board win games.
But the bigger play might have come early in the third quarter. Up to that point, the Packers had shown no ability to stop the Cowboys, who were up 21-15. Dallas faced a third-and-12. In a similar situation early in the game, quarterback Dak Prescott converted and put up a touchdown later on the drive.
This time, Prescott threw a screen to receiver Terrance Williams, but backup cornerback Quinten Rollins’ dive and reach got just enough of Williams’ ankle to bring the receiver down two yards short of a first down. The Cowboys punted. And that’s when the Packers finally got a chance to take the lead.
That play, as much as any on defense, won this game. And that shows what a fine line there can be between success and failure in the NFL.
For much of the day, coordinator Dom Capers’ defense had a terrible time getting off the field, but it finally beat a good quarterback. Prescott, (105.2 rating, 37 yards rushing) even as a second-year pro, shows some Rodgers-like ability to make difficult throws on the run.
The Packers played a lot of zone against him, presumably so their linebackers and defensive backs could see him and prevent him from beating them with scrambles. This was no Andy Dalton they were playing.
But Prescott kept finding Jason Witten (eight catches, 7.6-yard average), Dez Bryant (five, 10.4) and Cole Beasley (four, 5.8) sitting down in the holes of the zone for chains-moving completions.
Another of the Packers’ few big defensive plays came on a third-and-8 early in the fourth quarter. Prescott again tried to hit Witten sitting in a hole of the zone coverage, but safety Kentrell Brice played it perfectly, reached over Witten’s shoulder and batted down the ball. That forced a field goal, which was a win for the Packers and kept them ahead 28-24.
The Packers need to get second-year cornerback Josh Hawkins on the field more. In the third quarter he made the kind of play that was mostly lacking in the secondary Sunday when, after Bryant beat him initially, he broke hard on the pass and actually forced Bryant to knock the ball away like he was the defensive player.
Hawkins appears to be the Packers’ most aggressive cornerback. Whether Kevin King (concussion) can play this week or not, Hawkins warrants more playing time in the cornerback rotation.
Blake Martinez (12 tackles) is becoming a bona fide run stopper at linebacker. He’s closing hard to the hole and making plays near and even behind the line of scrimmage. He’s sometimes slow getting out on pass coverage, but against the run, he’s a player.
Quarterback: A lot of times Aaron Rodgers’ arm wins games, but Sunday he did it as much with his legs. Grade: A
Offensive line: Lane Taylor was game in another start at left tackle but had a rougher time. The line misses LT David Bakhtiari and gave up too many big hits on Rodgers, and four sacks is unacceptable. Grade: D+
Running backs: Great first start for Aaron Jones (125 yards on 19 carries), though his pass blocking still needs work. Grade: B+
Tight ends: Solid performances from Martellus Bennett (three catches, 53 yards) and Lance Kendricks (one for 24), but they weren’t a big enough part of the game to get an A. Grade: B
Wide receivers: Their signature is going up to make the tough catch, as Davante Adams did on the game-winning 12-yard fade. Grade: B
Defensive line: Kenny Clark led a group that did its job clogging up the run, but it still needs to provide more inside pressure against the pass. Grade: B-
Linebackers: Blake Martinez is becoming a bandit in the run game, and coordinator Dom Capers’ game plan was to rush more to contain Zak Prescott in the pocket than sack him. But the Packers still need more of an outside pass rush from Clay Matthews, Nick Perry and Ahmad Brooks. C-
Cornerbacks: Losing Kevin King (concussion) for the game early hurt. They didn’t contest the ball enough but got a gift interception that went of receiver Terrance Williams’ hands to Damarious Randall, who made the play and turned it into a touchdown. Grade: D+
Safeties: Ha Ha Clinton-Dix seems to be a step away on a big play or two a game, including one Sunday. Kentrell Brice had a huge pass breakup in the fourth quarter against Jason Witten. Grade: C+
Special teams: Two missed extra points is a disaster and could cost a game. New snapper Taybor Pepper was at least partially responsible for one. Grade: D