Silverstein: Aaron Jones can take Packers' offense to next level

Tom Silverstein
Packers News
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Green Bay Packers running back Aaron Jones celebrates his game-winning touchdown run during overtime against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Dec. 3, 2017, at Lambeau Field.

GREEN BAY – Everything running back Jamaal Williams did Sunday to will the Green Bay Packers to an overtime victory over Tampa Bay should be recognized for what it was: an inspired performance.

The 6-foot, 212-pound rookie came into his own at the same time the offense desperately needed someone to lean on.

Yet if you want to know what really could make the Packers a difficult team to defend in the weeks to come, look at the two plays in which running back Aaron Jones participated.

Practically everyone saw him turn nothing into a game-winning 20-yard touchdown against the Buccaneers. It was an amazing piece of running, especially for someone who had missed the previous three games with an MCL tear.

Now, if you were really paying attention, you would have noticed something remarkable about his other snap – given to him after Williams had been on the field nine of the first 10 plays on the Packers’ opening drive.

Jones was in the backfield on first-and-10 at the Buccaneers 23 when quarterback Brett Hundley decided to get the ball into the hands of his best receiver, Davante Adams, who was split wide to the right. It was a run-pass option in which Hundley can give the ball to Jones or throw it quickly to Adams and let him fight for some yards.

Seeing the cornerback playing off, Hundley threw to Adams, who gained four yards.

What many didn’t see is that after the fake handoff, Jones got behind pulling guard Jahri Evans and ran through a hole whose entryway led all the way to the end zone. If Hundley had handed it off, Jones only would have had to beat a safety, who was 15 yards away and likely helpless against Jones’ quickness.

If it had played out that way, the Packers may never have had to go to overtime since the drive ended with a field goal and not a touchdown.

If the two-play performance told the Packers' coaching staff anything, other than that Jones is healthy again, it is they need to regard him as the No. 1 threat on offense, at least until the return of quarterback Aaron Rodgers.

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As well as Adams has made lemonade out of the receivers’ predicament of playing with someone who can’t consistently get them the ball, Jones can be the threat that every defense from this point forward will have to consider when it plays the Packers.

Jones has carried the ball just 71 times this season, but his production has been outstanding. He has 390 yards and four touchdowns and has topped 100 yards in two of his four starts.

Though the sample size is small, Jones’ percentage of carries gaining 10 or more yards is among the best in the NFL. He has 10 such plays, representing 14.1 percent of his carries, which is a higher percentage than top-ranked backs such as LeVeon Bell (9.6 percent), Todd Gurley (12.6 percent), LeSean McCoy (12.0 percent), Melvin Gordon (12.0 percent), Kareem Hunt (12.9 percent) and Jordan Howard (10.8 percent).

The outlier is New Orleans’ Alvin Kamara (26.7 percent) and there are some part-time backs who have a slightly higher percentage than Jones, but not many.

Jones’ percentage of 10-plus rushes is the highest for the Packers since Eddie Lacy’s 15.4 in 2014, which was the power back’s best season statistically of his four in Green Bay.

What’s more, Jones ranks third among all qualifying backs (65 carries or more) in first-down percentage. He gets a first down on 26.8 percent of his carries, trailing only Kamara (37.2 percent) and Atlanta’s Devonta Freeman (28.1 percent).

As coach Mike McCarthy and his staff game plan for Cleveland, a solid defensive team despite its 0-12 record (10th in yards allowed, sixth in run yards allowed), a conservative game plan that highlights the run game wouldn’t be a bad idea, especially given the forecast is for 30-degree temperatures with 15 mph winds.

McCarthy must figure out how to divvy up the carries between Williams and Jones and still keep Hundley active. It wouldn’t be surprising to see him dial up a lot more read-option for Hundley, especially if Cleveland decides to crash the line of scrimmage the way Tampa Bay did.

Whatever McCarthy decides to do, Jones has to be a huge part of it.

Williams wore down the Buccaneers' defense and his production during the game caused the Buccaneers to over-pursue Jones and make it possible to bounce the play outside for a touchdown. Williams is built for the type of game that will be played Sunday at FirstEnergy Stadium.

So far this season, Williams has two runs of 10 or more yards, the longest 25. He has been far more explosive in the passing game with receptions of 13, 14, 16, 18 and 54 yards.

Jones is the guy who hits home runs and with Hundley maddeningly inconsistent and unable to get the ball into the hands of Adams, Randall Cobb and Jordy Nelson, the Packers need to revive Jones’ role as the lead back. They need someone who can keep them from repeating the three-and-out cycle they got stuck in during the second half against Tampa Bay.

It is a nice problem to have, choosing between one guy averaging 5.5 yards per carry and another guy who has produced 258 total yards and three touchdowns in the last two games.

 "I think you have two young running backs that are very instinctive runners,” McCarthy said. “They’re vertical runners. They don’t waste time. You don’t see them dancing in the hole. They do a great job of accelerating color and hitting the crease.

“Jamaal’s done an excellent job handling the workload that he’s had to handle the last three weeks. You could see the impact that Aaron makes just putting him in the game the last play. What you liked about them is their styles are different. They have different paces to them.”

There is definitely a role for both, but the Packers cannot ignore the one difference between them and that is Jones’ explosiveness. Games are won with big plays and as Jones showed last Sunday, he seems ready to produce a whole bunch more this season.

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