GREEN BAY – Through his first game and a half as the Packers’ feature back, rookie Jamaal Williams never got loose in the open field.
Then came the screen pass in the first quarter in Pittsburgh last Sunday night.
Well-blocked to the left along the Green Bay sideline, the play gave Williams a big seam and not only did he take it, he wasn’t touched in going 54 yards for a touchdown.
It was the first chance for the former BYU star to show his speed, and he didn’t disappoint.
“I probably surprised a lot of people,” Williams said this week. “They probably didn’t think I was going to get in there.
“Shoot, I didn’t think I was going to get in there. I had to look at the TV, just to make sure (not to get caught) at the 1-yard line.”
By TV, Williams meant the big screen on the scoreboard in the Heinz Field end zone. He joked that “slow people” who “don’t have burners” need visual aids in those situations.
Except he really didn’t in making the first explosive play of his young pro career. Before the Pittsburgh game, Williams’ longest run was 8 yards, and his longest reception just 16.
But if the 54-yard sprint against the Steelers is an indication of another dimension he can bring, the Packers’ offense will be better for it.
“You see it in practice,” running backs coach Ben Sirmans said of Williams’ speed. “Obviously, he took off and turned it on during that screen. You’ve seen glimpses of it in practice. I know from the combine, testing him out, he was in the 4.5s. He has pretty good speed. He’s just waiting for the long run besides the screen.”
In weeks prior, fellow rookie Aaron Jones broke off a 43-yard TD run vs. New Orleans, and Ty Montgomery bolted 37 yards for a score at Chicago.
A similar breakaway play on the ground is all that’s been missing for Williams, who has racked up 304 yards from scrimmage on 68 touches (59-190 rushing, 9-114 receiving) in the last 10 quarters since Jones (knee) and Montgomery (ribs) went down.
He’s earned plenty of tough yards, converting in short-yardage situations against the Bears and Steelers, while getting stopped in comparable spots against the Ravens. He put those on himself with his pad level, just as he believes by keeping his knees up and churning he’ll break the leg tackles that have been preventing a big run.
“He’s been awesome for us, running the rock,” quarterback Brett Hundley said. “He’s a great back, has a lot of juice back there. He brings great energy to the huddle.”
There’s a chance Williams won’t be running solo much longer. Jones returned to practice this week on a limited basis (Montgomery has remained out and was placed on injured reserve Friday), so a 1-2 punch with the fourth- and fifth-round rookies could be on the horizon.
The combination sounds intriguing, with Williams’ power and Jones’ shiftiness perhaps complementing one another and keeping a defense from settling in against one style of runner.
“It’s something we’re looking forward to,” Sirmans said. “Both guys have shown they have their own methods to moving the chains. I think they can work together. If one guy isn’t getting overloaded, they could stay fresh. That’s a formula I’m looking forward to figuring out.”
Most important to the equation is both backs now have experience as the go-to guy on offense. It’ll require an adjustment to job-share, should it happen as early as Sunday against the Buccaneers, but the workloads both have handled when called upon have forced them to mature more quickly than they might have otherwise.
“Yeah, because now, I feel like we’re both more comfortable back there, and we can excel in anything,” Williams said. “Now, we’re not really worried about, ‘Can we play or can we not play?’ We know we can play with these dudes. Now we feel like professionals.”
The coaches know both can play, too, and that’ll factor into the division of labor going forward. Jones is the one with the pair of 100-yard rushing games, but Williams has earned a place in the offense when his other running mates are healthy as well.
“I think he’s definitely put himself in position where he deserves that,” Sirmans said. “We know it’ll help us.”