By Nick Shook
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Green Bay, typically a team reliant upon Aaron Rodgers and the passing game, threw it back to the days of Lombardi in Week 5, relying on Aaron Jones to churn up 125 yards rushing on just 19 carries in a 35-30 win over the Dallas Cowboys.
With an offensive line that lost a couple of key pieces from last season and a unit that ranked 22nd in the league in rushing even after Jones’ performance, it was a surprise to say the least, especially considering very few had heard of Jones prior to Sunday.
The Packers didn’t do anything special to spring Jones other than repeatedly execute effectively and take advantage of a Cowboys defense that ranks tied for 20th in the NFL against the run (allowing 118 yards per game on the ground through five weeks). The success started on Jones’ first rush, with 7:52 left to play in the first quarter.
Green Bay’s rushing offense isn’t complex, and often relies on identical plays. Green Bay trotted out an Ace formation with a tight end on each side of the line on Jones’ first carry, with a handoff to the left succeeding thanks to left guard Justin McCray‘s awareness and ability to maneuver his frame in tight space.
There’s inherent beauty in an aware lineman altering course to save a play from destruction. Jones’ first carry went for 13 yards, but probably would have gone for much less had McCray not kept his head on a swivel. McCray pulled to lead, but noticed linebacker Kyle Wilber shooting the gap in an attempt to blow up the play for a loss. Instead, McCray peeled back, picking up Wilber in the intended hole, and Jones read the development of the play, bouncing the carry outside and sprinting toward the sideline for a first down.
Serving as proof that familiarity serves the Packers best, Green Bay ran the same play late in the second quarter, with McCray doing something similar in peeling back to block. Cornerback Orlando Scandrick burst forward to cut down Jones for no gain.
Lane Taylor mirrored McCray’s awareness in the second half, pulling out to the edge to lead before turning back inside to seal off linebacker Jaylon Smith, who was well within range to bring down Jones short of the first down on fourth-and-1. It was one of Taylor’s best blocks of the day, topped only by a clutch block on Smith in the first half.
Listed as a guard, Taylor has been playing right tackle for the Packers in 2017, and had am up-and-down first half, getting pushed into the backfield and jamming up a couple of carries. On Jones’ lone touchdown, though, Taylor was the key blocker.
Taylor doubled with right guard Jahri Evans on defensive tackle Maliek Collins before chipping to second level, engaging linebacker Smith and clearing a lane for Jones to sprint through to the end zone.
The Packers found success on the ground without breaking the huge gain, as Jones’ largest run went for 22 yards. While Green Bay’s blocking was effective, Jones deserves just as much credit for his vision, as he frequently used his eyes to find running lanes outside of the play’s design. He also broke multiple tackles, including running through an arm tackle attempt by Smith on a carry that put Green Bay inside Dallas’ 5.
The Cowboys weren’t particularly disciplined against the run (as detailed in the video at the top of this page), but they did find ways to jam up rushing lanes. The result stonewalled Jones on a couple of carries, but also forced Jones to bounce it outside, including on an eight-yard carry in the first quarter.
The beauty of Green Bay’s rushing attack with Jones is it found success on a variety of styles. Jones gained 13 yards on a play that saw the left tackle and guard pull to the edge, and also gained more than five yards on multiple power plays, which seems to be the Packers‘ most effective running play. Most of these plays came out of traditional power sets, with multiple tight ends and Aaron Ripkowski at fullback (in Green Bay’s all-Aaron backfield of Rodgers, Jones and Ripkowski).
Two of Jones’ biggest gains of the day surprisingly came out of the shotgun set. His longest run happened on a zone play that flowed left but opened up a big cutback lane on the right side. Thanks to the flow of the play and defensive end Damontre Moore‘s designed slant inside, there was plenty of daylight for Jones to rip off a 22-yard run and get the Packers out of their own red zone.
Jones’ other big gain, for 15 yards, again came out of the shotgun, propelled by a double team of David Irving, which opened enough space for Jones to sprint through past a great second-level block from Evans, who chipped off the double team to seal linebacker Justin Durant. It was a massively important gain on a drive that proved to be the game-winning possession for Green Bay.
Green Bay’s running game remains secondary. There’s no guarantee Jones repeats his performance this season, as the Cowboys very obviously missed Sean Lee‘s sideline-to-sideline ability. But the variety of formations out of which the Packers found rushing success is encouraging for a team that could use the balance moving forward.
Blocks of the Week
We’re keeping things in the aforementioned game for the first honor, as McCray’s ability to spot danger got Jones off to a hot start in a tough environment in Arlington, Texas.
Next, we’re off to the Steel City for a touchdown run that iced an emphatic win for Jacksonville. A group effort opened enough of a lane for rookie runner Leonard Fournette to burst through toward the end zone on a 90-yard touchdown scamper.
Finally, we move to Cleveland, where Duke Johnson was a bright spot in an otherwise disappointing and frustrating Browns loss to the New York Jets. This screen pass was as much great blocking as it was a Herculean effort on the part of Johnson, who has been one of the few positives in the Browns‘ offense thus far.
The winners on this play aren’t the linemen (save for JC Tretter‘s kick out of Terrence Brooks) but the downfield blocking pass-catchers, tight end Seth DeValve and receivers Sammie Coates and Rashard Higgins.
See a block that you think deserves the spotlight? Submit your nominations with the hashtag #BlocksOfTheWeek to Nick Shook and follow him on Twitter @TheNickShook.