GREEN BAY – All preseason, Justin McCray saw the potential. The way Aaron Jones set up blocks was special. His vision and instincts were sound and fundamental.
So it should come as little surprise for the first-year offensive lineman or anyone else on offense that the Packers’ rookie fifth-round pick has emerged as a legitimate threat out of the backfield.
In its first game without quarterback Aaron Rodgers, Green Bay turned to its other Aaron to help drive the offense downfield. Jones responded with a career-high 131 rushing yards and a touchdown on 17 carries (7.7 avg.).
While it wasn’t enough to lift the Packers past New Orleans in a 26-17 loss Sunday afternoon, Jones’ performance served as another reminder of the power he possesses.
“I knew he was going to be pretty good, pretty soon,” said McCray, who started in place of an injured Lane Taylor at left guard Sunday. “He has a good feel of where the holes are going to be and where they might be eventually.”
Jones had a reputation for big plays when the Packers drafted him out of the University of Texas-El Paso last spring. The all-time leading rusher in Miners’ program history, Jones went on to lead the Packers in rushing during the preseason (19 carries for 105 yards) en route to carving out a role on offense.
You couldn’t have asked for a faster start Sunday against the Saints. The 5-foot-9, 208-pound running back shot out of the gate on the Packers’ opening series with a 15-yard run on the first play of the game and then converted a third-and-2 situation with a 6-yard run off a stretch play to the sideline.
Favoring the run to get backup Brett Hundley comfortable, Jones then followed a block from tight end Martellus Bennett to break off a 46-yard touchdown run up the middle of the field.
In less than two minutes, Jones already had four carries for 70 yards to stake his team to an early 7-0 lead.
“I always want to make plays every time I touch the ball,” Jones said. “As soon as I got through the line and saw it open up and saw the safeties were split, different sides of the field, (I) decided I’m just going to run straight.”
Jones also fared well in pass protection, cutting the blitzing inside linebacker to free Hundley on his 14-yard touchdown scramble off the left side of the field, which gave Green Bay a 14-7 lead.
With 10 carries for 97 yards at halftime, Jones crossed the 100-yard mark for the second time in three weeks with a 4-yard carry on the Packers’ first offensive play of the third quarter.
He then tacked on a 21-yard rush later in the quarter, breaking free on the right side after the Packers lined up all three of their tight ends off right tackle Bryan Bulaga.
“I’m getting more and more confident every week,” Jones said. “We get new installs but the quarterbacks are helping me out, the coaches and Ty (Montgomery) are helping me out. So it helps a lot.”
One factor working in Jones’ favor was the fact Green Bay finally had its two starting tackles, David Bakhtiari and Bulaga, on the field from start to finish for the first time this season.
While the Packers finished with their best rushing performance of the year – 24 carries for 181 yards (7.5 avg.) and two touchdowns – it wasn’t enough to overcome the 79 total passing yards the offense produced.
There’s a balance the offense must strike between run and pass. That idea will be an emphasis the Packers plan to take into their Week 8 bye.
“I thought we ran the ball really well,” Bulaga said. “I thought it was a good day doing that. But at the same time we need to be just as productive in the pass game as well. I don't know, without watching the tape, what was going on in the pass game.
“It's a group effort in the pass game. Everybody's got a role in it. As a unit we need to step up and do our part.”
Based on his production, it’s almost difficult to fathom Jones was a healthy scratch in the Packers’ opener against Seattle in Week 1. Jones didn’t even touch the ball until he was forced into the spotlight after Montgomery and Jamaal Williams exited during Green Bay’s Week 4 contest against Chicago.
The Packers want to open their offense up more going forward and Jones knows production from the running backs is going to help meet that objective.
For Jones, the past month has been a whirlwind, but you can’t argue with the production. He has now amassed 346 rushing yards and three touchdowns on 62 carries (5.6 avg.) over the last month.
“Everything is happening fast,” Jones said. “I don’t know another way to explain it. I’m definitely enjoying it.”
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