Another week, another big test for the Denver Broncos’ new-look defense under first-year head coach Vic Fangio.
This week, Week 3, Denver travels to the hallowed grounds of Lambeau Field to take on the upstart Green Bay Packers, who ironically are also in the early stages of life under a new head coach.
All the talk surrounding the Packers heading into Week 3’s matchup is the state of star quarterback Aaron Rodgers and the health of All-Pro-caliber wide receiver Davante Adams.
However, I think quite a few people continue to sleep on third-year running back Aaron Jones.
In Jones’ rookie season, the Packers kept him tied to the bench until late in the year, after which he exploded onto the scene and seemed to fix the long, troubling history of the Packers finding a running back that paired well with Rodgers’ skill-set.
Green Bay has found that guy in Jones, and if Sunday’s 21-16 win over Minnesota was any indication of how they truly feel about Jones, he’s going to be trouble for defenses moving forward.
Green Bay has expanded its offense under first-year head coach Matt LaFleur, unlocking some new formations and entirely new ways of looking at how to attack defenses.
Right away on Sunday, I saw that from Green Bay with Jones.
A swing threat in space
Prior to motioning into the backfield as Rodgers’ sidecar to the right, Jones was lined up in the slot. The motion was utilized to identify the Vikings' coverage scheme. Once Green Bay figured out what the Vikings were doing in terms of coverage, it allowed Rodgers to adjust on the fly, sending Jones back in motion behind him to his left, setting up an easy swing throw.
Because this was a toss backwards by Rodgers, it went as a run play, which is something LaFleur wants to do with running backs and receivers on screens and quick throws to the flat, creating an extension of the running game.
Running this play allowed Green Bay to get Jones, a dynamic runner, in space with the football coming downhill unimpeded against Minnesota’s boundary defenders.
One thing I’ve noticed overall in Green Bay’s ground attack with Jones as the bell-cow is his tendency to see cutback lanes before they open, sticking his foot in the ground to get to those cutback creases and chew up yardage on the defense.
On Sunday against the Vikings, Jones took advantage of Minnesota’s front overflowing the football, leaving some sizeable cutback lanes. Now, Jones didn’t break off any homerun-type runs in the game on cutbacks, but those 8- and 9-yard gains can add up over time, which they did in the Packers’ win.
Both times, Jones gets going downhill towards the line of scrimmage, getting Minnesota’s defenders to commit that direction. Once he sees the defense flowing that way, his eyes immediately dart to the backside of the play in search of the cutback lane.
He’s really good at finding the cutback lane, sticking his foot in the ground, and exploding towards that lane, getting upfield in a hurry to get as many yards as possible.
An underrated pass protector
Aside from his exploits as a runner, Jones has really morphed into a strong pass-blocking running back, which has kept him on the field for most of the game. He’s become much better – and quicker – at identifying the unblocked man, allowing him to get into position earlier and set his feet to anchor for the block. Other times, he’ll just explode into blitzers.
Harrison Smith ran into a brick wall and absolutely disappeared on this play. That’s a great job by Jones of sticking his face into the fan against one of the league’s most physical safeties one-on-one in the hole, giving Rodgers a few more seconds of time on a play that ultimately went incomplete.
How the Broncos win
For the Broncos to succeed in slowing down Jones on Sunday, they’ll need Todd Davis to get up to speed in a hurry. Davis is questionable for Sunday’s game but is expected to make his 2019 debut.
If Davis can get up to speed quickly and get the front seven in order, Denver should be able to play disciplined football up front, negating some cutback lanes. The Broncos have to get their defensive linemen to tie up blockers and stay within themselves, whereas Minnesota’s defensive linemen hunted the football, getting off blocks and overpursuing the ball, leading to Jones cutting back against the grain.
Should Denver’s front play disciplined football and force the Packers to turn into a one-dimensional offense, guys like Bradley Chubb and Von Miller can pin their ears back and get after Rodgers on Sunday.
Stopping the run, namely Jones, has to be the first priority on Sunday. Getting Green Bay out of rhythm early will do wonders for a defense that has come up short in the first two weeks of the season.