GREEN BAY, Wis. -- When Aaron Jones beat the linebacker, Minnesota’s Eric Kendricks, on a wheel route down the right sideline in the fourth quarter on Sunday, it looked like the Green Bay Packers running back was about to flash another aspect of his game.
Make that catch -- a 20-yard gain at minimum -- and perhaps his day goes from remarkable to extraordinary.
But Jones couldn’t disguise his eyes and didn’t use the "late-hands" technique in which a would-be pass catcher doesn’t extend his arms for the ball until the last possible second. It allowed Kendricks to break up what might have been a slightly underthrown ball by Aaron Rodgers.
It's not to discredit Jones’ afternoon, one with 150 total yards from scrimmage (116 rushing yards and a touchdown on 23 carries plus four catches for 34 yards). Rather, it’s to identify another area in which the 5-foot-9, 208-pound third-year pro can help first-year coach Matt LaFleur’s offense break out from its early-season blahs.
As LaFleur tries to integrate his system into an offense that, through two games, ranks 29th out of 32 teams in the NFL in yards and tied for 25th in points, the more ways he can get the ball in Jones’ hands the better.
In Sunday’s 21-16 win over the Vikings, Jones had an NFL career high for carries (23) and was tied for his most targets (six).
"People see his stature, he’s not 220 pounds, he doesn’t look like Derrick Henry," Packers right tackle Bryan Bulaga said. "Just because he doesn't look like that doesn’t mean he can’t manage that type of workload. He’s more than capable. He can be in there on third downs and pass protect.
"I think everyone saw that clip he had on (Vikings safety) Harrison Smith, picking up that pressure. He can do all of that and do it very well. And then if you get him out against a linebacker in open space and throw him the ball, he’s probably going to win that matchup a lot of the time. So, very good player and a great weapon to have."
And it sounds like Rodgers trusts him.
"You saw the one I threw to him going the other way in the second quarter. He caught it kind of right here," Rodgers said putting his hands up to his shoulder. "He’s just got fantastic hands. He has great ball skills. That one I should have just laid up a little more. He beat him on the wheel route. It was tight coverage. Kendricks made a nice play on the ball, but if I put the ball out there where it should have been, it would have been a completion."
It was clear early against the Vikings that LaFleur wanted to involve his running backs, not just Jones but also Jamaal Williams. On the game’s second play, LaFleur put both of his backs on the field together and called for a short throw behind the line of scrimmage to the left that Jones turned into a 6-yard run. Two plays later, they showed the exact same look, but this time Rodgers threw a screen to Williams for a 15-yard touchdown.
"That’s what we’re trying to do, is to have multiple plays that start out looking the same that are different," LaFleur said. "That’s part of our philosophy. I knew that was something they probably hadn’t prepared for because we really hadn’t shown much on tape unless they were going back to last year in Tennessee. We like to present something new to a defense each and every week."
And that could include new ways to get Jones the ball this week against the Denver Broncos.
Last year, Jones led the NFL with a 5.5-yard rushing average, but the Packers dropped back to pass at the highest rate (71.5 percent) in the NFL. To be sure, Jones must show he can stay healthy. He finished each of his first two seasons with knee injuries. To that end, Jones revamped his eating habits, most notably giving up gummy bears and other sweets.
Jones was drafted to play in previous coach Mike McCarthy's offense, but he appears tailor-made for LaFleur's system that uses a zone running scheme and running backs in various roles.
"I think he’s a real talented player, and I think the sky’s the limit for him in terms of being able to use him whether it’s out of the backfield or lined up as a receiver," LaFleur said. "But I think every game plan dictates a different plan from us. Moving forward you could see him out there. It just depends on the week."
LaFleur can’t count on handing the ball to Jones 23 times every game, so he’d like to be able to count on his hands -- something Jones said he dedicated massive amounts of time to this offseason. He said he split his time between route running and hands drills because "good hands without good route running -- or vice versa -- doesn’t do any good," Jones said.
That’s why he lamented not hauling in that wheel route against Kendricks.
"I think he knew the ball was coming because my head was looking back the whole time," Jones said. "I think he did key as soon as my hands went up [because] you saw him start to raise his hand. That’s where you keep working and take it to another level. You’re running down the field and the ball’s right on your shoulder and you show late hands and you don’t give the defense a chance to make the play.
"That’s one of the things [Davante Adams] does so well, Randall [Cobb] was so good at it. Just trying to learn from those guys."