Green Bay has the 22nd-ranked rushing attack, but don’t tell Vikings defensive end Everson Griffen that it’s easy to overlook the Packers’ newfound depth at running back while focusing on their one-of-a-kind quarterback Aaron Rodgers.
“Oh, no,” Griffen said Wednesday. “You’re not going to lose focus on their running game.”
And why not?
“If you let them get the running game going and play-action, they’re two-dimensional,” Griffen said. “And then they have Aaron, who’s like a running back. So then they’re like three-dimensional. You can’t give them three dimensions.”
Griffen giggled at how he added another dimension to a staple NFL cliché. But he was serious about a Packers running game that featured rookie fifth-round draft pick Aaron Jones’ fabulous NFL starting debut in last week’s 35-31 victory at Dallas.
With starter Ty Montgomery inactive because of broken ribs, the Packers went to Dallas and turned the 5-9, 208-pound Jones, who grew up in Texas, into someone for whom fantasy footballers would fistfight to acquire. With 19 carries for 125 yards (6.6 yards per carry) and one touchdown, Jones became the first Packers rookie to top 100 yards in his starting debut since Samkon Gado 12 years ago.
“We liked his running style coming out of [UTEP],” Packers coach Mike McCarthy said. “He doesn’t waste any steps. He’s a vertical runner. I think that makes him really good.”
Jones left UTEP as its leader in career rushing yards (4,114) and single-season yards (1,773). The latter came last season when Jones also averaged 7.7 yards per carry with 17 touchdowns.
Remember when the Packers were so thin at running back that they switched a receiver, Montgomery, to that position? Well, General Manager Ted Thompson took care of that issue by taking three running backs on Day 3 of this year’s draft.
After Jones’ breakout game, McCarthy was asked if he felt he has a “1-2 punch.” He responded, “I hope I have a 1-4 punch” that includes fourth-round pick Jamaal Williams of BYU and seventh-rounder Devante Mays of Utah State.
McCarthy was asked what his thoughts were when Thompson used three of seven Day-3 picks on running backs.
“My thoughts were, ‘Well, we definitely got some depth now,’ ” McCarthy said. “What I liked about it was all three are uniquely different. As a coach, particularly when you’re building an offense and getting set for the upcoming season, it’s good to have diversity like that.
“And for every running back who comes into this league, you have to establish yourself as a three-down player. I think all three of these guys are excelling at pass protection and third-down characteristics and the intangibles you have to have to do that.”
Montgomery’s status for Sunday’s game at U.S. Bank Stadium is improving after he had full participation in Wednesday’s practice. But even if Montgomery returns, McCarthy said Jones “has earned the right to have more opportunities.”
In only 1½ games, Jones actually leads the Packers in rushing. He has 174 yards and a 5.4 average compared to Montgomery’s 152 yards and 3.3 average.
“We looked at [Jones] coming out [in the draft],” Vikings coach Mike Zimmer said. “We thought he was good. He’s got good quickness. He’s good coming out of the backfield, catching the ball. It’s a different dimension than when they had [Eddie] Lacy.”
In Dallas, the Packers didn’t waste time using Jones to provide the balance they seek. On Green Bay’s opening possession, Jones had two carries for 21 yards as the Packers marched 75 yards to their league-leading fourth touchdown on an opening drive.
On Green Bay’s third possession, Jones showed good instincts, hands and body control on a 9-yard sideline catch on second-and-8. He finished that drive with a 7-yard TD run.
Afterward, Jones told reporters he actually ran the wrong route before running to an open area per Green Bay’s rules for when Rodgers scrambles.
“I made up for it by playing fast,” Jones said.
Fast player. Fast start.
“He looks good, he can hit the holes good, he’s getting downhill,” Griffen said. “No, we’re not going to lose focus on this running game.”