As a rookie in 2017, Aaron Jones had arguably the worst receiving season by any player of all-time. He caught 9-of-18 targeted passes for 22 yards. His 1.22 yards per target is the worst for any player with at least 15 targets in NFL history.
On Sunday night at Kansas City, it’s almost inconceivable that the Green Bay Packers could have beaten the Chiefs without the exploits of Jones.
Jones caught seven passes for 159 yards and two touchdowns. He delivered big plays, including a 50-yarder that set up one touchdown and a 67-yard touchdown for the decisive score. And he delivered from short range, including the 8-yard catch that clinched the victory.
Thanks in large part to the play of the running backs, the Packers are 4-0 without Davante Adams. Adams has had only two bigger days in his career, including the career-high 180 performance vs. Philadelphia in Week 4 in which he was injured.
“I think the way we’re winning is interesting,” quarterback Aaron Rodgers said. Of his 305 passing yards, more than half went to Jones.
How did Jones go from an ineffective receiver as a rookie to mediocre last year to sensational this year?
“Just worked on it all offseason,” Jones said. “Continued to catch balls – bad balls, good balls, high balls, low balls. My mom always tells me if you it touches your hand, you better catch it. Take her advice and anything that touches my hands, I try to come down with.”
The work has continued into the season. At Friday’s practice, for instance, he said he spent extra time with practice-squad quarterback Manny Wilkins.
Since the start of the 2010 season, only Kansas City’s Jamaal Charles (eight receptions for 195 yards and four touchdowns) had more receiving yards by a running back than Jones had against the Chiefs. Jones caught 7-of-8 targets; the only incompletion was an intentional one by Rodgers on a failed screen.
Jones wasn’t the only running back to pick up the receiving slack. Jamaal Williams recorded his fourth receiving touchdown of the season when he hauled in Rodgers’ remarkable pass early in the fourth quarter. With two Chiefs defenders closing in on the sack, Rodgers lofted a pass into the back corner of the end zone for the score and a 24-17 lead.
“As I rolled to the right, I saw Jimmy (Graham) and I saw somebody wrapping behind him,” Rodgers said. “I was actually throwing a ball that I thought maybe Jimmy could go up and get if he wanted to and, if he didn’t, the guy behind him might be able to get it. Luckily, the guy behind him got it.”
Said Williams on his role in what will go down as one of Rodgers’ more legendary throws: “When we met eyes, I just seen him throw it and then after that, I’m just like, ‘Hmm, this ball look like it's going in the corner. Might as well go and run after it.’ Then I just felt the linebacker get my arm but you just got to keep your eyes on the prize, on the ball and go out there and make plays.”
The touchdown to Williams required a remarkable throw. The second touchdown to Jones, which delivered the winning score, was one of the easier throws of Rodgers’ career. It was a simple screen to the left. Graham, left tackle David Bakhtiari and center Corey Linsley were out front and got Jones into the clear.
“I came to the sideline and I told the O-line, ‘That’s y’all’s touchdown,’” Jones said. “They sealed that so clean for me. Anytime you get that as a runner, you’re just smiling.”
Green Bay’s backs entered the week ranked fourth in the league with 50 receptions, fourth with 411 yards and second with four touchdowns. Jones and Williams (three catches, 14 yards) added 10 receptions for 171 yards and three touchdowns to the tally. Just eight games into the season, Green Bay’s 582 receiving yards from its backs are only 19 fewer than all of last season and more than in 2016 and 2017. The seven receiving touchdowns are as many as the Packers received the past three seasons combined.
“People just think running backs run the ball, but really we do a lot more than that,” Williams said. “We showed that we can go out there and run routes, try to be good in one on one coverages, run slip screens. It's just giving us more weapons in our arsenal, just showing that running backs are versatile, we can do everything. When you get us in a system that works for us, you just let us go out there and make plays. With all the great players we've got around us, too, it just makes it easy for us.”
With coach Matt LaFleur finding ways to work around Adams’ injury, the Packers are a shocking 7-1. In Adams’ absence, Jones has been the team’s obvious best playmaker. Defenses, however, haven’t been able to stop him.
“I think we’ve found a way to win,” Rodgers said. “It hasn’t been the prettiest the entire time. There’s been some pretty moments, though. But I think we’ve given a lot of guys’ confidence. Not that Jones or Jamaal needed it, but I really am proud of the way that Jake has played, and Allen has played. And we’ve gotten contributions – maybe not big on the stat sheet – from Jimmy and Marcedes (Lewis) that are very important, and Danny Vitale. So it’s a lot of guys really pitching in. I think the line has obviously played really well, but it’s given those guys a chance to gain some confidence. And at the same time, we’re excited about getting (Adams) back at some point.”