Aaron Rodgers has been without top wide receiver Davante Adams since Week 4. In his four games since, his passing output has risen from 267 yards per game to just under 314 each week.
The reason for this surge? A little extra freedom from head coach Matt LaFleur, and a lot of extra trust in tailback Aaron Jones.
Jones has emerged as more than just a runner out of the backfield for the Packers. With Adams out, Jones has been responsible for 551 yards from scrimmage and seven touchdowns in four games. That’s not quite how LaFleur has drawn it up; Jones only had more than 13 carries in one week in that span. Instead, it’s been a function of Rodgers’ nearly unrivaled ability to improvise, audible, and exploit mismatches that have allowed the former fifth-round pick to shine.
That’s put Jones at the top of his QB’s wish list when it comes to cracking defenses in the face of pressure. Against the Chiefs, the Packers were forced to shift to a quick-hit passing game instead of the deep ball. Rodgers threw only five passes 15+ yards downfield in 33 attempts in Week 8 (15.2 percent). Over his prior three games, per NFL Next Gen Stats, he’d thrown 28 such passes in 118 throws (23.7 percent).
But Green Bay knew exactly how to burn Kansas City’s pressure-heavy defense because it had seen it before. Chicago forced Rodgers into a similarly rushed outlook back in the team’s season opener. And while a better Bears defense had used that strategy to limit the Pack to just 10 points, Green Bay had a new plan to torch an overzealous defense: Jones.
How did he do it? Three of the Packers’ biggest plays in a 31-24 win involved Rodgers, Jones, and some timely improvisation at the line of scrimmage.
Let’s take a deeper look at these three plays and what they meant to the Packers.
Play No. 1: Rodgers hit Jones with a deep sideline pass for a 50-yard gain
This was a simple and obvious adjustment for Rodgers facing second-and-10 with 3:30 remaining in the first quarter. Jones was covered by an inside linebacker with little hope of catching up to him, so the QB motioned him out wide where he was less likely to draw over-the-top safety help.
Anthony Hitchens had no prayer of running with a faster, younger back and the play resulted in a massive gain as Green Bay threatened to turn this game into an early rout:
Aaron Rodgers sees his RB is covered by an inside linebacker, so he splits him wide and then proceeds to roast him. Hoooooo boy pic.twitter.com/qZDO2oxCiT— Christian D'Andrea (@TrainIsland) October 28, 2019
That touchdown was called back when Jones was ruled out of bounds upon review, but it still led to seven points minutes later. Rodgers effectively turned his running back into a wideout to broil the Chiefs, trusting a player who’d made his bones in the backfield to beat an underprepared opponent with a sideline route.
It wasn’t especially challenging, but Jones completed it to perfection.
Play No. 2: Rodgers connected with Jones on a screen pass for a 67-yard touchdown
Jones flew past his outmatched assignment down the sideline, but that was early in the game. Then the KC blitz started to show its advantage in the trenches against an offensive line missing David Bakhtiari and Bryan Bulaga due to injury. Chiefs coach Andy Reid was content to throw extra linebackers at a quarterback who struggled to get the ball to his top wideout targets all night — Geronimo Allison and Marquez Valdes-Scantling combined for just two catches on five targets in Arrowhead Stadium.
As Kansas City’s pressure became a theme, getting the ball out in two seconds or less was a priority. The Packers were relying on at-the-line audibles more than ever when they faced second-and-2 with 8:16 left in the game. While the first half had seen the team take its time in the huddle, Green Bay shifted gears to allow Rodgers extra time to survey the landscape at the line of scrimmage and bark out new directions.
This worked as intended when he saw the same Hitchens mismatch in the fourth quarter of a tie game. Rodgers slid Jones into position for a wide receiver screen, and then watched him glide 67 yards to the end zone.
Rodgers sees Jones in 1-on-1 coverage against an ILB, motions him into a quick screen, lets his touchdown machine RB clean up from there pic.twitter.com/KnEfV3Kkds— Christian D'Andrea (@TrainIsland) October 28, 2019
Jones got the message to drop back for a WR screen loud and clear and instantly rewarded his QB’s faith — and his wideouts’ downfield blocking. It only took two unplanned routes for Jones to crack 100 yards receiving.
That was also the game’s deciding score.
Play No. 3: Aaron Jones ran off tackle for 4 yards
Rodgers’ most important pre-snap adjustment may have been a mundane play that garnered a fraction of the yardage of his other big audibles. Green Bay led 31-24 when it faced a vital third down late in the game.
And, once again, the Chiefs were burned by a changed play at the line of scrimmage that put the ball in Jones’ hands.
Rodgers looks at his 3rd-and-2 setup, audibles to a Jones carry, and gets the first. Matt LaFleur is going pretty hands off with his QB, which is absolutely the right decision pic.twitter.com/o7LZLciW8A— Christian D'Andrea (@TrainIsland) October 28, 2019
Rodgers spotted the weakness, and the tailback did his job — this time, identifying the correct hole to push forward for the first down — to keep his team on track to victory. Jones got the ball on four of the next five plays after this dagger, too. He gained 25 yards and earned the first downs that allowed his team to kneel out a road win in one of the league’s most hostile environments.
Rodgers was riding his hot hand, sure, but he made it clear the third-year back is firmly in his circle of trust.
“I think the scheme is obviously giving him opportunities to do a lot more out of the backfield,” said Rodgers after Sunday’s win. “We’re splitting him out and throwing the ball to him. We kind of caught lightning in a bottle a couple times. We hit him on a 50-yard slant and go and then hit a screen pass for 70 or whatever. He’s a talented guy.”
Jones has earned his QB’s confidence, but the Packers will be fine when opposing defenses begin to swarm him
Jones’ latest big performance — he’d had a four-touchdown day in a 182-yard Week 5 win over the Cowboys — was thanks to a combination of his blossoming talent as an NFL running back and the Chiefs’ inability to recognize that. Future opponents are going to take a look at that game tape and make sure the Packers’ starting RB isn’t shadowed only by a slow linebacker going forward.
But Jones isn’t the only star at the top of the depth chart, as Adams is practicing with the team and could make his way back to the lineup shortly. When he returns, he’ll add more strength to a receiving corps that’s thrived due to its diversity. Through eight games, eight different players have had at least 50 receiving yards in a single game. Jamaal Williams has run for a team best 4.4 yards per carry, has four touchdown catches in seven games, and was the toe-tapping recipient of this minor miracle:
The basic takeaway from their Week 8 win is that the Packers are once again scary on offense. The bigger development is Rodgers’ ability to move his tailback around like a chess piece in order to put him in perfect position to strike. Green Bay survived its trip to Kansas City because its quarterback knew exactly how and when to deploy an overlooked asset, and that’s what ultimately kept the Chiefs’ comeback effort at bay.
That’s the gift Rodgers brings to his offense, but it won’t work unless he’s got a target who can turn his vision into game-breaking plays. On Sunday night, Jones was exactly that. And even when he can’t be, he’s now a big enough target to create space for his teammates to step up in his place.