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Dougherty: With season on line, Green Bay Packers have to ride Aaron Jones while they can

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GREEN BAY − In his three-plus years as Green Bay Packers coach, Matt LaFleur has made sure not to wear out Aaron Jones.

For good reason. Jones is a small running back (about 200 pounds) and has had his share of injuries in his six-year career. To improve the odds Jones would be healthy in January, LaFleur has made sure he limited Jones’ touches from September through December.

But with the Packers sitting at 4-6 and coming off a big overtime win over Dallas in which Jones had 26 rushes and catches combined, those days are gone. LaFleur has to take his chances and ride his best playmaker if the Packers are to have much chance to go on a run to the playoffs. The Packers’ margins are too thin, and Jones is too good to do otherwise.

“We don’t want to put him into a situation where we put him at risk,” LaFleur said Tuesday of upping Jones’ usage. “But, yeah, we kind of have our backs against the wall so to speak. We’ve got to make sure we’re doing whatever we can to get the production and go out and win games. Certainly he’s as valuable as anybody here in terms of his ability to go out and produce at such a high level.”

LaFleur still has two good backs, so that doesn’t mean AJ Dillon shouldn’t or won’t have a meaningful role for the rest of the season. There’s almost no such thing as an every-down back in the NFL – Derrick Henry of the Packers’ opponent this week, Tennessee, is one of the few exceptions. And Dillon is a good complementary changeup to Jones because of his size (247 pounds) and physical north-south running style.

Those qualities also figure to make Dillon more effective now that the weather is turning cold and the Packers still having six games left in northern climates (four at home, plus at Philadelphia and Chicago). It’s not like Jones will or should be playing 90% of the offensive snaps.

But anyone who’s watched the Packers regularly this season knows Jones is their best player with the ball in his hands. He’s a big-play threat every time he touches the ball, and his ability to change direction is special. Dillon is a good one-cut, punishing downhill runner, but he’s not in Jones’ class overall.

It’s surely no coincidence the Packers had their season’s best game on offense last week against Dallas with Jones touching the ball 26 times (for 156 yards). How rare is for him to get the ball that much in a game? Extremely, almost any way you look at it.

The 26 touches tied for the second most of his career. He’s had more than 20 touches in only 12 his 79 career games, and 25 or more touches only five times.

For his career, Jones has averaged 14.7 touches per game. Since LaFleur’s arrival in 2019, the average is 16.7, and his highest average in a season was 17.8 in ’19, the year before the Packers drafted Dillon.

That’s as good a sign as any for how valuable he is. LaFleur and Mike McCarthy before him made a priority of improving the odds he was on the field when the playoffs started. What good would it do to have Jones put up huge numbers but then not be healthy for the money games?

But if it takes Jones getting 25 touches a week from here on out, so be it.

The way the Packers played last week, and the way they used Jones, is how they have to play this season. They have real talent in some of their young receivers, as Romeo Doubs showed before suffering a high-ankle sprain and Christian Watson proved last week against Dallas. But their growing pains are just as real and likely to continue. The Packers’ 31-point, 415-yard performance against the Cowboys was the best demonstration to date of how running the ball, and often sticking with it on what used to be passing downs for Aaron Rodgers, eventually opens things up downfield.

It also helped that LaFleur went back to the roots of his offense by drastically increasing the number of snaps Rodgers took from under center rather than in shotgun.

Rodgers prefers shotgun because he can better see the field, but going under center is a bedrock of LaFleur’s scheme because of its role in the play-action game. When the quarterback is under center, the linebackers and safeties have a longer look at him holding the ball out for a possible handoff, which makes them more prone to biting on the fake. Running backs generally like it better because they get a look at the defense before they even get the ball. And LaFleur's run and pass calls are married up in the playbook to look the same and reinforce doubt in the defense.

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Against the Cowboys, Rodgers more than doubled the percentage of snaps under center compared to the rest of the season. He took 53% (34 of 60) of the snaps from under center, according to Pro Football Focus, compared to 24.2% in the nine previous games.

Rodgers threw only 20 passes in the game, but the efficiency jumps out: 14-for-20 for 224 yards and a 146.7 rating. In a sign of how a credible running game can affect a defense, two of the Packers’ biggest plays in the game – Rodgers’ 58-yard touchdown pass to Watson in the second quarter and big 36-yard completion to Allen Lazard on a third-and-1 in overtime – came on play action.  

“We were under center a lot more, it felt like,” Rodgers said after the game. “… We ran it really, really effectively, and that set up all those things. We had kind of been setting that (overtime) play up for a while throughout the game, and it hadn’t been there, hadn’t been there, hadn’t been there. Allen and I kind of had a conversation on the sideline and felt like if we came back to that play, it had a chance to be there.”

LaFLeur and Rodgers appear to have finally figured out who the Packers are on offense. But with where they’re sitting, if they want a shot at playing in mid-January, they can’t worry about mid-January. They have to ride Aaron Jones now.

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