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Packers at the Bye: Running Backs

With 12 games down and a fight for the No. 1 seed and the playoffs on the horizon, here’s the key at running back for the Green Bay Packers.

GREEN BAY, Wis. – Green Bay Packers running back Aaron Jones didn’t need to play against the Rams. Having missed one game with a knee injury and the bye coming up, nobody would have doubted Jones’ toughness or desire if he would have sat out Sunday’s game.

Instead, Jones played 40 snaps in a 36-28 victory. He wasn’t super-productive – he carried 10 times for 23 yards and didn’t catch a pass – but he was out there and had to be accounted for by the Rams’ defense.

“He’s a leader,” fellow running back AJ Dillon said. “I say it all the time, and I don’t say it lightly (and) I don’t just say it because it’s the politically correct thing to say. He is a leader – a natural-born leader – and he shows it every day. Last year, him and Jamaal (Wiliams) took me under their wings. They didn’t have to spend extra time with me. Aaron will go out of his way to make sure that we’re straight, things like that.

“He’s just a really great guy, and that doesn’t always show up in the stats and the X’s and O’s. But, to me, so much more important than that, so much bigger than that. It’s really great to have him as a teammate. I always call him like my big brother. For him to go out there, it’s just resiliency and toughness and that’s what he embodies. And I’m excited for him to have this bye week just so he can be all set and ready to go. I mean, he’s a tough dude. A tough dude.”

Jones and Dillon are one of three backfield tandems in which each has 500-plus rushing yards. Stylistically, they could hardly be more different. Statistically, they’re practically identical. With a team-high 564 rushing yards, Jones is averaging 4.241 yards per carry. With 543 rushing yards, Dillon is averaging 4.242 yards per carry. That’s 0.036 inches.

Running behind a line that’s down three starters, they’ve had to fight for every fraction of an inch. According to SportRadar, 48.8 percent of the Packers’ rushing yards have come after contact. That’s the fourth-highest rate in the NFL. League-wide, 27 running backs have rushed the ball at least 110 times. According to Pro Football Focus, Dillon ranks eighth with 3.20 yards after contact and Jones is 18th with 2.83 yards after contact.

Sunday’s game against the Rams perfectly illustrated the state of Green Bay’s rushing attack. Dillon ran 20 times for 69 yards, a 3.5-yard average. His longest run of the game went for 8 yards. Jones averaged 2.3 yards on his 10 attempts. His longest run of the game also went for 8 yards. By PFF’s count, 85 of their 92 rushing yards came after contact. That’s a lot of effort for a rather minimal amount of reward.

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Still, the run game was effective because they almost always gained something. Dillon gained at least 1 yard on 19 of his 20 carries. That kept the Packers in manageable situations and helped keep Aaron Rodgers out of harm’s way from a ferocious pass rush.

“The way he ran the ball yesterday, a lot of people would say there wasn’t a lot of yards but he was on a mission,” offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett said of Dillon’s day. “There’s one play that I think he only gained like about a yard or two and he gets up and he is just pumped up. The amount of yards that he had after contact – he was dragging people, running people over – it was awesome. It’s about a mentality. You still have to run the ball even if you’re not getting those explosives. We’re obviously always searching for those, but just to set the standard, set the mentality that we’re going to bring it every single play, I think is important.”

For the season, Green Bay has been stuffed on 6.7 percent of its carries; a stuff is a tackle at or behind the line of scrimmage vs. the run. That’s tied with Chicago for the sixth-lowest rate in the NFL. That’s the good news. The bad news is only three teams have fewer 10-yard runs than Green Bay’s 23.

Critically, Jones hasn’t fumbled in seven consecutive games and Dillon hasn’t fumbled since coughing it up twice vs. Washington.

While Jones’ receiving credentials are well-established, Dillon has been a revelation in that phase. Of the 41 backs who have been targeted at least 25 times, he is third with a catch rate of 93.1 percent (27-of-29) and fifth with 9.7 yards after the catch per catch.

With defenses practically begging the Packers to run the ball by frequently playing two-deep coverage to help take away Davante Adams, Green Bay must get the running game cranked up. Routinely gaining yards is nice but no defense is going to fear a 3-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust offense. For this offense to reach its full potential heading into the playoffs, the blockers need to get Jones and Dillon into the open field more often, and Jones and Dillon must turn something big into something bigger.

Packers at the Bye Series

Quarterbacks