Why RBs Aaron Jones, AJ Dillon are key to getting Green Bay Packers' young WR corps on track

GREEN BAY, Wis. – Aaron Jones had it easy as a rookie, now that he looks back at his transition to the NFL. The Green Bay Packers running back was inactive for the 2017 regular-season opener, and when he did get on the field in Weeks 2 and 3, it was only on special teams.

He didn’t even touch the ball until Week 4.

Jones can barely imagine what rookie receivers Romeo Doubs and Christian Watson went through Sunday, when the coaches threw them into the season opener and expected them to produce right away.

“I think that did have its pluses to it,” Jones said of not playing right away. “At the time, to me, it didn’t. I wanted to play, but it gave me a month.

“So it did give me the time to see the speed of the game, what’s going on in our offense, understand it and what we were trying to achieve, both on special teams and on offense. Now I look back on it, I’m thankful for that time.”

If Jones can't exactly help Doubs and Watson because he didn’t experience what they’re going through right now, he can assist them in another way. He and fellow running back AJ Dillon can alleviate some of the pressure on the rookie receivers by taking on a larger share of the workload.

If coach Matt LaFleur will let them, that is.

“I'll put the offensive coordinator hat on for a second,” said LaFleur, who calls the offensive plays. “When two of your best players are your running backs and I think it was 18 touches total, that's not good enough. Was it 18 or was it more than that?”

LaFleur was referring to last week’s season-opening 23-7 loss to the Minnesota Vikings -- and it was actually 23 plays, but that still wasn’t enough. Had Jones and Dillon touched the ball more, the miscues and missed opportunities by Doubs and Watson might not have been so costly.

“Nothing against Matt -- Matt probably said the same thing -- but we maybe reacted to the score a little bit,” quarterback Aaron Rodgers said this week. “And we were running the ball well; I think we ran it about 6 [yards] a clip, so we’ve just got to stick with the run, make sure we get our attempts where we want them to be because that means one of those guys is touching the ball probably. We have a lot of different packages where they’re in the game in different spots and just finding ways to get them the football a few more times.”

That includes plays in which both Jones and Dillon are on the field at the same time. Against the Vikings, it was only seven times. On six, the Packers averaged 6.6 yards per play. On the other, Rodgers was sacked for a 9-yard loss.

The big play out of the two-back set was a 23-yard completion to tight end Robert Tonyan. Jones lined up wide left and then went in motion to the right before the snap. He went deep down the right side, taking safety Harrison Smith with him, which opened an underneath crossing route to the same side for Tonyan’s catch and run.

“I thought our backs, I really love how they competed,” LaFleur said. “They were fighting for every inch out there and, shoot, even when you see, like, on that explosive pass to Bobby Tonyan, you can watch Aaron Jones on the fly motion, how he regathers and he's blocking downfield.”

The running back duo of Jones and Dillon combined for 167 of the Packers’ 338 total yards from scrimmage against the Vikings.

Jones rushed for 49 yards on just five carries. His 9.8-yard average would have led the NFL through Week 1 if he had enough attempts to qualify for the league’s official statistical leaders.

“[If] I keep that 9.8, we’ll be good,” Jones said chuckling.

Throw in three catches for 27 yards, and he averaged 9.5 yards per touch. No wonder Rodgers says the backs need more touches.

“It definitely puts a smile on your face knowing that he wants you to be getting the ball as well,” Jones said. “[It’s] not just yourself who wants it.”

It didn't help that the Packers played without presumptive new No. 1 receiver Allen Lazard, who missed the opener because of an ankle injury but appears on track to play Sunday night against the Chicago Bears (8:20 p.m. ET, NBC).

That, too, could help take some of the pressure off Doubs and Watson.

Doubs (four catches for 37 yards, one rush for 11 yards) couldn’t quite replicate any of the eye-catching plays he made in training camp practices and preseason.

Watson, who missed the bulk of training camp and didn’t get any preseason action because of a knee injury, would probably rather forget his first NFL game (two catches for 34 yards, one rush for 7 yards) – or at least the first play, given that he dropped what would have been a 75-yard touchdown after he blew by Vikings cornerback Patrick Peterson.

This is where another veteran comes in. Randall Cobb, the dean of the receiver group, experienced his own rookie mistakes while trying to get on Rodgers’ good side. In his first game, the 2011 opener against the Saints, Cobb ran the wrong route on a play after he misinterpreted a pre-snap signal from Rodgers. Somehow, he still found himself open and caught a touchdown on the play.

The mistake worked out so well that the Packers actually added it to the playbook. Therein lies the lesson that Cobb has tried to share with the young receivers.

“You might not know all the meticulous details that we’re talking about,” Cobb said. “But we’re like, ‘Hey, do it with great effort. Show me you’re going to go out there and play hard and play with energy and effort, and we’ll correct the other things.’”