Packers offense, playoff hopes in two little-known rookie backs' hands (for now)
GREEN BAY – With the game tied midway through the fourth quarter at Lambeau Field on Sunday, Brett Hundley, having accumulated about 60 yards passing up to that point and following three consecutive three-and-out possessions, seemed to realize that the Packers' only chance of victory was if he stopped trying to throw the ball. On two late scoring drives, Hundley rushed three times for 39 yards to help Green Bay beat the Buccaneers, 26-20, in overtime.
But this isn't a story about a backup quarterback; rather, it's about the even less experienced, even more unheralded players standing next to Hundley who helped him win.
The Packers became more effective once they started utilizing the read-option offense – a system Hundley ran successfully in college – and they probably will have to stick with it Sunday in Cleveland, as Aaron Rodgers remains sidelined for another week. It's a gimmicky scheme not often used in the NFL, but it's now Green Bay's best chance for offensive production, due to Hundley's passing limitations. And the only reason it could work is because of the Packers' pair of little-known rookie running backs – a couple late-round draft picks that might be all that's keeping the team's flickering playoff hopes alive.
"When you can grind it out and do things a different way and your team is successful, we're a better team today," McCarthy said at his press conference Sunday. "Not only because we won the game, but because of how we won."
(Listen to in-depth Packers discussion on this week's episode of OnMilwaukee's Postgame Tailgate podcast here.)
Jamaal Williams and Aaron Jones were both selected on the final day of the 2017 NFL Draft in April – Williams in the fourth round, 134th overall, and Jones in the fifth round, No. 182. They were two of the trio of running backs Green Bay drafted, along with seventh-rounder Devante Mays, but not much was known about or expected of them. Williams and Jones both had played at mid-major college programs – BYU and UTEP, respectively – and they were competing to be, at best, the backup to Ty Montgomery.
Fast forward to October. Montgomery hadn't propelled the Packers' running game the way they hoped – placed on injured reserve last week, Montgomery finished the season with 71 rushes for 273 yards – and, especially after Rodgers broke his collarbone, the offense needed a spark. First, Green Bay turned to the diminutive Jones, and he delivered, rushing 49 times for 297 yards (6.1 average) and two touchdowns in three October starts, including two 100-yard performances. But in Green Bay's Nov. 12 game against the Bears, Jones was carted off with a knee injury, a sprained MCL that would keep him out the next two weeks.
Enter Williams, who picked up right where Jones, his training-camp roommate and good friend, left off. With Hundley inconsistent as a passer, the Packers leaned heavily on Williams' broad shoulders to give some stability to their struggling offense. Williams ran the ball 80 times – an almost incomprehensible number for a Mike McCarthy-coached team, which included three 20-carry games in four starts – for 303 yards and two touchdowns.
In Sunday's win over Tampa Bay, Williams had 21 rushing attempts for 113 yards (5.4 average) and a score, the only mechanism the Packers had to move the chains.
"I think it helps the offense a lot," Williams said. "It takes the pressure off of Brett and just lets him know he don't got to do it all by himself. We're here to make his job easier. So, you know, running the ball – as long as we get four or five yards each time, we're in good shape."
And, in a fitting conclusion to their storyline, after Williams ran three times for 21 yards on Green Bay's initial and final drive in overtime and needed a breather, Jones came in and – on his first touch of the afternoon – scampered in for the game-winning 20-yard touchdown.
"Do something," Jones said Sunday when asked what he was thinking before the crucial play. "It was my first carry – make the most of it because Jamaal was hot, so I probably wouldn't have got another carry after that."
Walk off TD ... Aaron Jones 🔥 pic.twitter.com/F1QUJjC8qr— Jake (@SeedsofJake) December 3, 2017
Said Hundley, "That's Aaron Jones for you. All he needs is one and (that was a) big play. To come in and ice the game like that – one carry – you can't really get better than that, so I'm sure he's happy."
Afterward, McCarthy was proud of both first-year players.
"I think the young man (Jones), you know, he's comfortable," McCarthy said. "Jamaal has done a tremendous job. You never have enough good players, and it'll be exciting to go forward with those two guys."
The victory got the Packers to 6-6 and kept them in playoff contention, as Rodgers returns to practice this week and becomes eligible to return for the team's Week 15 game against Carolina. Until then, though, McCarthy's offense will clearly revolve around its rookie backfield tandem.
The term "thunder and lightning" is overused in football when it comes to describing runners with different styles and builds, but it certainly fits in Green Bay right now, which offers optimism for this stumbling squad.
The bigger and more traditional back, Williams (6-foot, 213 pounds) is a workhorse, a physical, between-the-tackles hammer who relishes contact, punishes defenders and seems to get stronger as the game goes on. The change-of-pace Jones (5-9, 208) is shifty and quick, with good vision and burst and, when healthy, he seems able to gain six yards without trying. Williams is the better pass blocker and receiver, but Jones is a more pure runner.
Even when Rodgers returns, as the weather gets colder, the Packers will need to run the ball. Williams and Jones have proved themselves reliable and productive; McCarthy suggested after the game Sunday that Green Bay's offensive "approach" had changed and its path forward was on the ground.
"We came out of halftime (wanting) to run the football. We felt good about a number of things that we frankly didn't get to in the run game," McCarthy said. "The three-and-outs held us back. You look at the play totals, I think we were minus 20, 21 plays compared to where they were.
"We have to get opportunities. We need more attempts at the plate to run the football and to get to some of the reaction things that we have up. That's why you plan, that's why we practice, but at the end of the day, you have to do whatever you have to do to win."
Before the season, no one could have predicted Williams and Jones would play such significant roles for the Packers. But right now, no one on Green Bay is more important to helping this team get where it wants to go.
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