GREEN BAY – Jamaal Williams had all of 10 carries on his NFL resume when Aaron Rodgers was carted to the visiting locker room inside U.S. Bank Stadium with what was later diagnosed as a broken right collarbone.
The Packers’ rookie running back had taken a few snaps with the starting quarterback prior to Rodgers’ injury, but he spent most of his summer and the six games of the regular season operating as the third option behind Ty Montgomery and Aaron Jones.
Injuries to both thrust Williams into the lineup during the Packers’ 23-16 win over the Chicago Bears in Week 10. He’s since touched the ball at least 20 times in each of Green Bay’s last five games, amassing 545 total yards and five touchdowns.
While Montgomery was lost for the season to wrist surgery, Jones has since returned to provide a speedy change-of-pace to Williams’ power running style. As Rodgers readies to return off injured reserve for Sunday’s showdown in Carolina, he rejoins an offense that’s seen two backfield playmakers emerge in the quarterback’s absence.
That pick-your-poison proposition has the Packers excited about the final three games of the regular season and beyond.
“I think the biggest thing is it makes us more dynamic and it’s going to make the defense think a little bit more on how they approach the game,” left tackle David Bakhtiari said. “Who do they want to have them beat? Are they going to lean toward Aaron? When you say Aaron, then which Aaron? Are you talking about Jones or Rodgers? You don’t really know how they’re going to game plan and attack us.”
The situation is reminiscent of 2013 when Eddie Lacy ran for 666 yards and seven touchdowns during the seven games Rodgers missed due to a broken collarbone in his non-throwing shoulder. Lacy’s production helped keep Green Bay in the playoff hunt and propelled him to NFL offensive rookie of the year.
The Packers’ run game – ranked 26th at the time of Rodgers’ injury – has surged in the second half of the season behind Williams and Jones, who have each captured the FedEx Ground Player of the Week at different times this year.
Green Bay’s ground game had perhaps its finest showing of the season against Tampa Bay, totaling 199 rushing yards thanks to Williams’ 113 yards, backup quarterback Brett Hundley’s 66 yards and Jones’ 20-yard walk-off touchdown in overtime to seal a 26-20 victory at Lambeau Field.
It was Jones’ first game back after a two-game absence due to a knee sprain.
“It’s just great for us to be back and I think we just feel more comfortable than when we did when we first got here,” Williams said. “We’re just growing up, getting in the flow of things. We feel part of the team.
“I mean we're having our fun, enjoying our time, helping each other learn, whatever we need to learn, get little details here and there, so I just feel like we've improved a lot from where we started throughout the season and to the season now. The years coming up ahead are just going to get even better.”
The Packers face two of the league’s stingiest run defenses over the next two weeks in Carolina and Minnesota. Entering Week 15 the Panthers sit third in the NFL, allowing 89.5 yards per game, while the Vikings presently are second with an 88.3 average.
Carolina has yet to give up 100 yards to a single rusher this season, though New Orleans’ one-two punch of Mark Ingram and Alvin Kamara had success against the Panthers’ front two weeks ago when they racked up 145 yards and three touchdowns on 23 carries in a 31-21 Saints victory.
The return of Rodgers should help keep the Panthers honest. Given the two-time MVP’s ability to extend plays and establish the vertical passing game, it should make upcoming defenses think more about dropping an extra safety into the box.
“It’s going to help the running backs out,” said Jones, whose 388 rushing yards and 5.2 average lead Green Bay this season. “We’re not going to see as many eight-man fronts that much. They’re going to have to respect him. Just look at his history.”
The Packers would have Montgomery available for the stretch run in a perfect world, but they like the one-two punch forming in Williams and Jones, who share an agency and roomed together during their first summer in Green Bay.
Williams knows he could be looked on to be a tone-setter Sunday. While Rodgers is the undisputed focal point of the offense, both Williams and Jones feel fresh and ready to do their part in a hopeful playoff push.
“I feel we’ve always been dangerous, but it’s great to have 12 back there, putting things together,” Williams said. “Now, people have to respect us even more pass game-wise, too. I think it’ll help out the run game a little bit more.”