Tom Oates: Aaron Jones’ career day offers glimpse of Packers’ potential on offense
GREEN BAY − One week after his fumble cost the Green Bay Packers a shot at a road victory, Aaron Jones responded with a performance so special that even grizzled guard Byron Bell was showing uncommon respect for the second-year running back.
“Mr. Jones, yeah, he’s a great back,” Bell said. “I was telling him ... I think he made up for the fumble this week.”
Mr. Jones? Really?
After Jones rushed for 145 yards and two touchdowns on 15 carries and added 27 more yards on three pass receptions in the Packers’ season-saving, 31-12 victory over the Miami Dolphins Sunday at Lambeau Field, a better name might be savior.
Jones’ running supplied desperately needed balance to an offense that has played fitfully all season. Coach Mike McCarthy, who had been using Jones in a job-sharing arrangement with hard-running Jamaal Williams since Jones returned from a two-game NFL suspension, finally handed the bulk of the carries over to Jones and, as virtually everyone in Wisconsin suspected, Jones knew what to do with them.
“He’s a dynamic player,” wide receiver Davante Adams said. “He plays real fast and he’s really talented. You can obviously see the consistency, so I think that’s why he’s starting to get more opportunities now.”
Not even McCarthy, who has stubbornly refused to ride Jones like other teams do with their most talented back, can deny the effect Jones has on a game. His pass-receiving and pass-protection skills may be works-in-progress, but Jones showed Sunday what can happen when he touches the ball 18 times.
Let’s not fool ourselves here. With quarterback Aaron Rodgers on the field, the Packers offense will never run through Jones. But Jones’ career day showed he needs to be at least an equal partner with Rodgers if the Packers are going to smooth out their offense and make a run at a playoff berth.
McCarthy has been giving lip-service to a balanced offense for years. Now he has the means to deliver one.
“He’s a slashing running back,” tackle David Bakhtiari said. “His ability to see the hole and hit it at full speed and to cut pretty much at full speed, that’s what makes him special. Anytime you have playmakers like that, you always want to make sure you give them as many touches as possible because they can always make magic happen.”
Jones’ magic act began after he dropped a pass on Green Bay’s first play. The Packers then marched for a touchdown, with Jones rushing twice for 27 yards and catching two screen passes for 27 more. On the first play of the Packers’ next possession, Jones burst through a double-wide hole in the middle and ran 67 yards to the 4, setting up another touchdown.
Virtually by himself, he staked the Packers to a 14-3 lead. Even more important, the threat Jones posed opened things up in the passing game.
“It just makes it easier when you’re able to run the ball like that,” tight end Jimmy Graham said. “When you come out running the ball like that, it sets up the play-action and it takes the pressure off 12 (Rodgers) having to sit back here and work so hard. We’ve just got to keep grinding, stay committed to it and try to make things easier for us.”
One area where Jones’ influence was felt was in the red zone. The Packers hadn’t been able to consistently finish off drives, but against the Dolphins, they scored four touchdowns in four trips inside the 20.
Asked about the difference in the red zone, Rodgers said, “Really running the ball I think, because we’ve been throwing it so many times in the red zone. We had some effective runs, which we hadn’t had in a while.”
Jones didn’t do it all by himself Sunday. He was the beneficiary of excellent run blocking, perhaps the best all season by the line. On his long run, he wasn’t even touched until the very end.
“I was just able to run, find the lane and, a lot of times, just be one on one with the safety,” Jones said. “It all starts up front with the blocking unit.”
Packers fans are painfully aware that Jones hasn’t had a heavy workload this season. The plus side of that is he’s fresher than most elite backs heading into the second half of the season and, should McCarthy decide to ride him down the stretch, he’s ready, willing and quite obviously able to put the team on his back.
“Of course, I could. Yes sir, I could,” Jones said, before explaining why. “Hard work pays off. I feel like I do a lot of good things with the ball in my hand. I feel I can change the game a little bit.”
One thing we know, Jones can change the way the Packers play the game. Rodgers has been playing solidly despite the left knee injury he suffered in the opener, but he needs help. Heck, he’d need help anyway because the NFL has finally caught up with McCarthy’s passing attack.
A Rodgers and Jones tandem could free up an offense that has been stuck in the mud.
“It’s special, especially when you’ve got both of the Aarons back there,” Bell said. “You’ve got a guy who can sling it around and a guy who can run it. It keeps the defense on their heels. Now we can get a balance with the play-action and we can take some shots downfield and we can squeeze it up there and let 33 work his magic and let 12 work his magic.”
It didn’t happen as quickly as people wanted but, as they say, better late than never.