Pack­ers of­fense sim­ply bet­ter with Aaron Jones on the field

Packer Plus - - News - PETE DOUGHERTY

— 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-21stcen­tury 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.

DAN POW­ERS/USA TO­DAY NET­WORK-WIS­CON­SIN

Pack­ers run­ning back Aaron Jones breaks away for a 67-yard run against the Mi­ami de­fense in the first quar­ter.

Pete Dougherty Colum­nist USA TO­DAY NET­WORK – WIS.

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