Dougherty: Packers need to see how far Aaron Jones can take them
The Green Bay Packers have been flailing around for an identity all season, and just after the halfway point they might have finally found it.
If they did, it’s a distinctly anti-21st-century football identity and not what you’d expect from a team that has Aaron Rodgers at quarterback. On top of that, it’s dependent on the precarious health of running back Aaron Jones.
If the 2018 Packers are going to make a second-half run into the playoffs, they’re going to have to do it as a running team. Or at least what qualifies as a running team in today’s NFL.
Keep in mind, Jones’ big day (15 carries for 145 yards) Sunday came against a Miami Dolphins run defense that ranks No. 31 in the NFL. But it’s not like Jones hasn’t shown before that he can make a difference if he gets the ball enough. It was just more obvious Sunday when he was on the field more than ever and led the Packers to their 31-12 win.
“If we ran an ‘80s offense, we’d love it,” center Corey Linsley said. “… (This game) was just a re-emphasis of how good Aaron Jones is, how good we can be in general, and (the run and pass) all builds off of each other.”
Why it took so long to make Jones the unquestioned No. 1 back, we can only guess. But the trade of Ty Montgomery a couple weeks ago has to be seen as a blessing, because now coach Mike McCarthy has no choice but to go with Jones and Jamaal Williams and not mess with the three-back rotation he’d been using that ended up diluting, not diversifying, the Packers’ offense.
On Sunday, McCarthy took another step toward committing more fully to Jones by giving him by far the majority of snaps, even one on a two-minute possession that was presumed to be Williams’ domain.
The Packers desperately need something, or someone, to take some of the load off Rodgers, who playing on an injured knee hasn’t been anything like his old MVP self. He’s been missing more throws than usual and looking like the burden of carrying the team was sapping him of his mojo.
Jones is the Packers’ best chance to help Rodgers get back on the road to playing like an MVP. The second-year running back can keep the chains moving with his quick burst and is capable of breaking off an explosive play any time he touches the ball.
Then there’s just the threat of a run whenever he’s on the field, which can only help slow the rush on Rodgers. It’s the simplest of football principles, and it’s true. But it only works if you have a running back who’s good enough to make it work.
“He’s awesome,” Linsley said of Jones. “He’s really good, he’s really shifty.”
The big question, though, is whether Jones’ body will hold up as the grind gets tougher and the load heavier in the season’s home stretch. He was ripping off so many good runs Sunday that he only needed 15 carries to put up 145 yards, and then McCarthy was able to get him out of the game for much of the fourth quarter because the Packers had a big lead.
But it’s not often going to be like this. At Seattle this week, or maybe at Minnesota the weekend after, the Packers might need to him to run the ball 20 times. Will he hold up?
It’s a legitimate question. You can be sure one of the reasons McCarthy has been slow to make Jones the clear-cut primary back is to keep him healthy, because Jones’ injury history is a big red flag. He missed most of his 2015 season at UTEP because of a dislocated ankle. Last year as a rookie with the Packers he sustained MCL sprains in each knee that limited him to 12 games. Then this year he missed three weeks of training camp with a hamstring injury.
Jones is listed at 208 pounds but said he’s actually more like 198. Compare that to the running backs who lead the league in carries: Todd Gurley is 224 pounds, James Conner 223, Kareem Hunt 216 and Ezekiel Elliott 228. They’re much better built for the punishment.
Running backs coach Ben Sirmans talked hopefully last week about Jones’ quickness helping him avoid big hits. But that only gets you so far. NFL running backs get hit, as Sirmans acknowledged shortly thereafter when asked if Jones could handle 20 carries, week in and week out.
“You would love to say that he could and can because obviously his production, it would definitely shoot through the roof,” Sirmans said. “But then you’ve got to worry about can he physically endure that type of pounding with his body type.”
After the game Jones said he can take 15 to 20 carries a game and that he came out of Sunday feeling great except for a few cuts on his skin.
“I haven’t woken up sore or anything (all season),” he said. “I’ve been productive, I’ve been explosive, and I feel like I can continue to do that. Every time I take a hit I get right up.”
Said Rodgers: “I like that range (of carries) for him. Obviously we didn’t have a ton of plays tonight based on the way the game went, but we have Jamaal (Williams), who’s a talented back in his own right. But I think (Jones) can handle 15 carries the rest of the way.”
This week will be a big test because of the Packers’ quick turnaround with a Thursday game at Seattle. Really from here on out, McCarthy will be walking a fine line between getting as much out of Jones as he can but also ensuring he’s healthy enough to stay on the field the rest of the way.
All that’s at stake is the Packers’ season. You don’t have to be an expert to see how much better they are with Jones on the field. It’s night and day.
With this team needing to go 5-2 or maybe even 6-1 in the last seven games to get into the playoffs, McCarthy might just have to err on the side of incaution.