Aaron Jones, not Aaron Rodgers, will be difference for Packers

Green Bay Packers, NFL Playoffs

The Green Bay Packers are back in the playoffs for the first time since 2016. And winning this weekend may rely on someone other than the quarterback.

It was a year of change in the place they call “Titletown.” For the first time since 2005, the Green Bay Packers opened the season with a head coach not named Mike McCarthy. The franchise was coming off back-to-back losing campaigns for the first time since the 1990 and ’91 seasons. On the plus side, change also mean the organization would make a deeper dive into free agency than usual.

In his second year on the job, general manager Brian Gutekunst opened up the company’s checkbook and signed the likes of outside linebackers Preston Smith and Za’Darius Smith and safety Adrian Amos. There’s little doubt the impact these performers have had on the club. There were three fewer sacks but 10 more takeaways than the previous year. The Packers allowed 87 fewer points (313) than in 2018 (400). And Mike Pettine’s unit surrendered only 34 offensive touchdowns compared to 45 offensive TDs one season earlier.

When it was all said and done, new sideline boss and first-time NFL head coach Matt LaFleur guided the team to a 13-3 record and Green Bay’s first NFC North title since 2016. Keep in mind this was a team that finished a combined 13-18-1 the previous two seasons combined. Quarterback Aaron Rodgers was healthy and enjoyed a solid but unspectacular year, throwing for 26 scores while turning over the football eight times. But there was one major difference when it came to this club this season and an aspect that had missed from the club for far too many years.

For the first time since 2015, the Green Bay Packers averaged at least 25 running plays per game. LaFleur stressed a balanced offensive approach and delivered. And the main catalyst was third-year running back Aaron Jones, who blossomed this season in the revised attack. He not only became the franchise’s first 1,000 yards rusher since Eddie Lacy in 2014 but also the first player since Lacy to total at least 200 rushing attempts.

A fifth-round draft choice in 2017 from UTEP, he was one of three running backs selected by then-general manager Ted Thompson. In his first two NFL seasons, he played in a combined 24 contests (12 starts). He touched the football a combined 249 times, amassed 1,404 yards from scrimmage and reached the end zone just 14 times. That all changed this past season when he made 16 starts and was Green Bay’s top ball-carrier and the club’s second-leading pass-catcher. Jones ran 236 times for 1,084 yards and 16 touchdowns. He totaled 49 catches for 474 yards and three scores. It added up to 1,558 scrimmage yards – eighth in the league – and 19 TDs – tied for the NFL lead with Carolina’s Christian McCaffrey.

Giving Rodgers a reliable running game has made a world of difference this season. It’s worth noting LaFleur’s club totaled at least 20 running plays in all but one of their 16 outings. In the previous two seasons combined, the club ran the football less than 20 times in 11-of-32 contests. And the club’s new-look offense has had a ripple effect throughout the club. The Pack is playing complimentary football for the first time in quite a few seasons.

It’s no longer a team reliant on its superbly talented quarterback and one of the game’s best arms. And the patience with the running game paid off big time in its final two outings on the road in wins over the Vikings and Lions.

On a Monday night at Minneapolis, the Packers trailed 10-9 at intermission and settle for three field goals after two quarters. Jones had totaled 10 carries for 45 yards in the first half. There would be 13 attempts for 109 yards and two touchdowns in a 23-10 victory. Six days later at Ford Field, the third-year pro finished with 25 carries for 100 yards in a 23-20 win. There were 15 attempts for 62 yards in the second half in a game LaFleur’s squad trailed 17-3 at halftime.

And there’s the difference with these Packers, who host the unpredictable Seattle Seahawks late Sunday afternoon. It’s no longer “The Rodgers’ Show” and a team relying heavily on its quarterback, regardless of how talented he is. It’s a balanced approach with the running game and Jones playing a major role in the team’s offensive success. And if this “other” Aaron can continue to excel and make life easier for his veteran signal-caller, the Pack could be back in a Super Bowl for the first time since 2010.

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