Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

Guards’ athleticis­m set up run game

- Eric Baranczyk and Pete Dougherty

In the locker room immediatel­y after the Green Bay Packers’ 34-24 win over the Dallas Cowboys, Aaron Jones tried to give the game ball he’d been awarded to his offensive linemen.

They rejected it because they wanted Jones to have it to commemorat­e his outstandin­g performanc­e in his home state of Texas.

But Jones’ sentiment was on target. If he was the player of this game, the Packers’ offensive line played a major supporting role and confirmed that general manager Brian Gutekunst has significantly upgraded the team’s guard position from last year.

On inside zone run after inside zone run Sunday, second-round pick Elgton Jenkins on the left side and Billy Turner on the right side showed their athleticis­m by bouncing out to the second level and blocking the Cowboys’ excellent linebacker corps of Jaylon Smith, Leighton Vander Esch and Sean Lee.

If Jones’ exceptiona­l vision and quick cuts were the biggest reason he rushed for 107 yards and averaged 5.6 yards a carry, he had a lot of help from Jenkins and Turner getting out on the Cowboys’ athletic linebacker­s on all those inside zone runs.

Coach Matt LaFleur decided to go with Lane Taylor instead of Jenkins as the starting left guard early in the season because of experience. Taylor better knew the line calls and the speed of a regular-season NFL game.

But when Jenkins began working into games for the occasional series, it was just a matter of time before he took over as starter. Taylor’s season-ending biceps injury a couple of weeks ago only hastened the changeover.

All signs suggest Jenkins already is improving as he accrues playing time, and on Sunday he was a key to the Packers’ dominating run game.

There were plenty of plays to pick from, but one illustrati­ve run came late in the first quarter, on a second-and-8 from Dallas’ 24. The Cowboys were in their base 4-3 personnel, so all three linebacker­s were on the field, and essentiall­y they had nine players in the box. This should be a tough personnel group to run against.

But on an inside zone run to the left, Jenkins shot out to Lee on the second level, turned the linebacker out and plowed him out of the play. Jones cut right off Jenkins’ backside and picked up 15 yards right through the heart of the Cowboys’ defense.

Later in that drive, on Jones’ 3-yard touchdown run, Jenkins executed the kind of block required from guards in a zone run scheme. He started off on a double team with center Corey Linsley, but quickly came off the block, picked up Vander Esch at about the 1, then buried the linebacker in the end zone, which paved the way for Jones to score.

Likewise, Turner had his best game since signing with the Packers at the steep price of $7 million a year.

From early on in this game Turner flashed his athleticis­m in the run game. On Jones’ 18-yard touchdown, for instance, Turner opened the hole up the middle by getting out to Smith and pushing him out of the way. That gave Jones a clear path to the end zone.

Later in the first quarter, on a secondand-3 Turner met Vander Esch about three yards downfield and knocked him back about 5 more yards. That cleared the way for Tra Carson to pick up an easy first down with a 7-yard gain. So it often went in this game.

Gutekunst put a lot resources into upgrading the interior of his line in the offseason. He used a highly valued second-round pick on Jenkins, and signed Turner at what appeared to be an extravagan­t price. Jenkins has shown promise from the start, and the decision to pay Turner a big contract is starting to look better after his up-and-down start.

The long run

The Packers’ defense is thriving in the big-play game but will need to defend the run better to contend for a Super Bowl.

The Packers’ pass defense definitely has shown the ability to take the ball away. Coordinato­r Mike Pettine’s defense intercepte­d Dak Prescott three times, saw Kevin King drop what should have been a fourth, and had another (by Will Redmond) called back because of a penalty on the defensive line.

King, Jaire Alexander and safety Darnell Savage bring a ball-hawking element to the secondary, and the pass rush with new outside linebacker­s Za’Darius Smith and Preston Smith is much better than the last couple of years.

All three sacks of Prescott came on four-man rushes, which shows Pettine he can get pressure while dropping seven players in coverage.

But while the defense contribute­d a lot of big plays in the Packers’ upset win at Dallas, it still didn’t exactly handle the run.

Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott averaged 6.2 yards a carry in the first half and 5.2 yards for the game, though he had only 12 carries. The Cowboys seemed bent on running play action on a lot of early downs in the first half, then were so far behind for most of the second half they had to throw.

Extra points

❚ The Packers have to hope that Robert Tonyan’s hip injury isn’t serious. He sustained it while making a leaping 23yard catch along the sidelines in the first quarter. It was Aaron Rodgers’ longest completion of the day. At this point, Tonyan is a more dynamic tight end than starter Jimmy Graham and should warrant increased playing time.

❚ One play late in the first half illustrate­d why the Packers promoted Carson from the practice squad rather than suit up Dexter Williams as the backup running back. LaFleur clearly doesn’t trust the rookie Williams in the passing game yet. Carson rewarded LaFleur’s faith on a second-and-goal from the 2 late in the second quarter.

On the play-action pass, defensive end Robert Quinn came unblocked off the edge, but Carson stood up Quinn with a solid hit that allowed Rodgers to escape the pocket to his right. Rodgers ended up throwing the ball away, but much better that than taking a big hit for a sack and possible fumble.

 ?? RONALD MARTINEZ / GETTY IMAGES ?? Green Bay Packers guard Elgton Jenkins (74) looks to block downfield as running back Aaron Jones (33) carries the ball Sunday at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas.
RONALD MARTINEZ / GETTY IMAGES Green Bay Packers guard Elgton Jenkins (74) looks to block downfield as running back Aaron Jones (33) carries the ball Sunday at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas.

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