Will Green Bay Packers running back Aaron Jones find the running room that was absent in Week 6? In Part 3 of a series that focuses on when Green Bay is running the football against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, SI.com beat writers Bill Huber in Green Bay and Zach Goodall in Tampa break down the matchups.
Green Bay’s Offense
While quarterback Aaron Rodgers is expected to win his third MVP, the key to offensive success for Sunday’s game starts with running back Aaron Jones.
Even while missing two games, Jones rushed for 1,104 yards and nine touchdowns. His 5.5-yard average ranked third among running backs. Among all running backs in NFL history with at least 650 career carries, his 5.17-yard average ranks sixth all-time. He is the total package with the vision to see openings, the ability to cut and explode through that opening, the agility to avoid tacklers and the toughness to bounce off defenders. The team’s zone scheme seemingly was invented for his skill-set.
Coach Matt LaFleur likes to say he’s got three No. 1 running backs. While Jamaal Williams and rookie AJ Dillon are solid options, that’s nonsense. Jones is one of the best in the business. His average of 3.54 yards after contact crushed Williams’ 2.66. Through LaFleur’s judicious usage, Jones finished 10th in carries but fourth in yards. With next week not guaranteed, now is the time to feed No. 33.
The depth is tremendous with the do-it-all Williams, who ran for 505 yards and is an excellent receiver, and Dillon, the second-round rookie who rushed for 124 yards against Tennessee in Week 16. Dillon suffered an injured quad last week against the Rams and his status is uncertain for Sunday.
The blocking crew is quality, though losing All-Pro left tackle David Bakhtiari to a torn ACL was a huge loss to the running game. Left guard Elgton Jenkins was picked for the Pro Bowl, center Corey Linsley was selected first-team All-Pro and right guard Lucas Patrick is a finisher. Veteran tight end Marcedes Lewis loves to block, receiver Allen Lazard has size and toughness, and speedy receiver Marquez Valdes-Scantling brings some feistiness to the party. Can the Packers handle the Bucs’ speed? They certainly couldn’t in Week 6, with Jones limited to 15 yards on 10 carries. It will be up to the coaches to create a better game plan.
Tampa Bay’s Defense
Tampa Bay allowed teams to rush for 100 or more yards in five of 18 games this year, including New Orleans twice. Green Bay was the closest team to making it six, with 94 in Week 6, though almost half of that total came on two carries.
The Bucs led the NFL in run defense at just 80.6 yards per game, nearly 10 yards fewer than the next team with just five teams allowing less than 100 on average. Its 3.60 yards allowed per carry was 0.11 yards better than any other team. The strong play has continued into the postseason.
Although the defensive line has missed Vita Vea throughout the season, elite play from the linebacking corps is ultimately what vaults Tampa Bay to the top of the rankings. Devin White and Lavonte David shooting gaps paired with Shaquil Barrett and Jason Pierre-Paul on the edges have combined for 45 tackles for losses and 179 "stops" – a tackle that constitutes a "failure" for the offense, per Pro Football Focus.
Ndamukong Suh brings energy to the front three and has made his share of plays, but the defensive line has done a better job with gap control to free up the linebackers than making plays on its own. The potential of adding Vea back at nose tackle could make a great unit that much better, but it would be his first action since fracturing his ankle in Week 5, so expectations must be tempered. Tampa Bay will continue to monitor his status up until kickoff.
Although he was outproduced in Week 6 by Jamaal Williams and A.J. Dillon, I also think now is the time to feed Aaron Jones. Even considering the strength of Tampa Bay's defense is against the run, Jones is a special talent, and if Green Bay can remain dedicated to him, he's bound to make big plays.