GREEN BAY – It would be nice if Green Bay Packers quarterback Brett Hundley had a veteran running back at his side when he makes his first NFL start against the New Orleans Saints.
Someone like John Kuhn, who knew the offense inside and out and would help Hundley set protections and be an insurance policy for any mistakes made along the offensive line.
But as reassuring as that might be for Packers coach Mike McCarthy in his first game without starter Aaron Rodgers in the lineup since 2013, there’s a better option.
His name is Aaron Jones.
As much of a risk as it is to have a rookie in the backfield with a quarterback who had played a total of 27 NFL snaps before replacing the injured Rodgers on Sunday in Minneapolis, it’s the best thing McCarthy can do for Hundley.
Jones had to split time with starter Ty Montgomery against the Vikings, but anyone who watched Jones in Dallas or saw him stay alive on a couple of doomed runs Sunday had to be impressed with what he brings to the offense.
The game against the Vikings might have been a lot different if Hundley had been able to complete a pair of screen passes to Jones in the fourth quarter of the Packers’ 23-10 loss. Hundley sailed both because he was under immense pressure and everyone was left to imagine what might have happened.
Jones didn’t get a chance to really get in a rhythm because McCarthy decided to alternate series with him and Montgomery, who was playing for the first time since breaking ribs against Chicago in Week 4. Only in the fourth quarter, when Montgomery’s ribs appeared to be bothering him, did McCarthy stick with Jones.
“We went into the game that way with the uncertainty of Ty Montgomery,” McCarthy said Wednesday, seeming to indicate Montgomery would have played more if healthy.
It would be a mistake not to let Jones be the lead back.
There are a couple of things you can count on now that Hundley has replaced Rodgers and one is that the offense is going to look different as the weeks go on because Hundley can’t do everything Rodgers can.
Another would be that opposing teams are going to do everything they can to make Hundley be the one who beats them. You can bet the house that the New Orleans Saints are going to load up the line of scrimmage with run defenders and potential blitzers to overwhelm Hundley on Sunday at Lambeau Field.
Two running-back assets that would really help in this situation are pass-protection skills and speed and quickness.
Jones is just OK as a blocker, but what has been evident repeatedly is that he will patiently read his blocks, cut back if necessary and make defenders miss. Montgomery is a better blocker, but his power style and lack of natural ability — he’s a former wide receiver — have resulted in poor results so far.
If Hundley is going to succeed, the Packers are going to have to take pressure off him by running the ball.
“The running game is maybe going to be our best asset,” veteran guard Jahri Evans said. “Not saying that we don’t have guys who can make plays on the outside.
“We just don’t want to be one-dimensional and have to (pass) all the time. Being able to get some yards on early downs in the run game, I think it’s going to help us a lot.”
Jones has been considerably more effective than Montgomery in that department this season.
Overall, Jones has carried 45 times for 215 yards (4.8-yard average) and two touchdowns with a long run of 22 yards. On first down, according to statistics kept by the Journal Sentinel, Jones has carried 25 times for 119 yards (4.7) .
Of his 25 carries on first down, he has only one negative rush.
Montgomery has carried 56 times for 180 yards (3.2) and two touchdowns with a long run of 11 yards this season. He is averaging 3.57 yards per carry and has one negative rush and five for zero yards on first down.
Montgomery has carried 56 times for 180 yards (3.2) and two touchdowns with a long run of 11 yards this season. He is averaging 3.0 yards per carry and has three negative rushes and six for zero yards on first down.
If there’s anything that would help Hundley, it would be good production on first down.
But there are other factors that make Jones a good fit.
The combination of two players with Hundley and Jones’ speed could greatly enhance bootleg fakes since defenders would know they can’t be late when it comes to chasing Jones on outside running plays and over-pursue. If Hundley gets around the corner off one of those fakes, he would have more time to throw and an option to run.
Another possibility would be some read-option, where Hundley hands off or keeps the ball based on whether the ends play the running back or the quarterback. It’s not going to be a staple of the offense, but Jones’ quick-twitch ability could result in him breaking through the line before the defense can tell who has the ball.
As Evans, who was only talking in general terms and not favoring one back over the other, pointed out, the Saints are going to play a lot of different fronts to try to confuse Hundley and the offensive line. The Packers are going to have to keep them off balance.
“The quickest thing that will get them out of those exotic looks is to catch them in a good run where they’re not gap sound and bust one,” said Evans, who played 11 seasons with the Saints before joining the Packers. "We have to keep them honest and keep them out of those exotic looks.”
Montgomery hasn’t had a big game since Week 14 last season against Chicago when he rushed 16 times for 162 yards and two touchdowns. He played an amazing 205 snaps in the first three games, but all he had to show for it was 124 yards on 41 carries (3.0 average) with two touchdowns.
He was better catching out of the backfield, posting 18 receptions for 129 yards and a touchdown.
The most logical way to go would be to make Jones the lead back and Montgomery a third-down specialist. Jones earned 19 carries against the Dallas Cowboys in his first career start because he kept making something happen, finishing with 125 yards rushing and 9 yards receiving.
Rodgers called Jones’ number twice on the game-winning drive because he believed he could gash the Cowboys defense.
Heading into the Saints game, the Packers’ run game is unsettled. Maybe it’s a work in progress, maybe not.
“It’s always a work in progress,” fullback Aaron Ripkowski said. “It’s week to week. It’s not really a destination to get to like, ‘Oh, our running game is working now’ because every week is different because of schemes you’re going against.
“There are so many variables that it’s always a work in progress.”
Still, McCarthy can move it along considerably by committing to Jones.