GREEN BAY — Aaron Rodgers liked Aaron Jones right away.
While the Green Bay Packers quarterback usually takes a wait-and-see approach when it comes to talking about rookies — including the three running backs the Packers drafted this spring — he’s always observing, always critiquing, always making mental notes about each of them. Why? Because after 13 years around here, he knows that at some point, his draft-and-develop Packers will need them to contribute.
And so, while some might have been surprised by the way Jones performed in last Thursday night’s 35-14 victory over the Chicago Bears — he ran 13 times for 49 yards and a touchdown (3.8-yard average) after injuries knocked starter Ty Montgomery (chest) and backup Jamaal Williams (knee) out of the game — Rodgers was not.
In fact, everything Jones did — except for on one play call, on which he wasn’t sure where to go when he went in motion — confirmed what Rodgers already thought about the rookie fifth-round pick from Texas-El Paso.
“I’ve been a big fan of his since the beginning,” Rodgers said. “I think he’s a very natural runner with the football. He knows what he’s doing. There wasn’t any hesitation. He asked me one time to repeat which side he was motioning to.
“But other than that, I think he did a great job. Like I said, he’s a natural runner. He had some good runs for us, and I’m very confident with him.”
That’s good, because Jones may be the starting running back Sunday when they play at Dallas. While Montgomery, a Dallas-area native who surely will push to play against the Cowboys, and Williams, who appears to have escaped major injury as well, could be back in action after the quasi-bye weekend that followed the Thursday night game, there’s no guarantee either of them will be ready.
That would mean Jones and rookie seventh-round pick Devante Mays, along with fullback Aaron Ripkowski and wide receiver Randall Cobb, would be charged with manning the Packers’ running game — an operation that has struggled to produce during the season’s first four games.
While the Packers are off to a 3-1 start, they’re 28th in the 32-team league in rushing offense (74.5 yards per game) and 25th in yards per rush (3.5 yards per attempt). Their longest run was a 13-yarder by Rodgers, and none of their running backs are averaging 4.0 yards per carry.
Jones was inactive as a healthy scratch for the Sept. 10 regular-season opener (Mays was the No. 3 back behind Montgomery and Williams) and hadn’t played from scrimmage before Thursday night. Once he got the call, though, he delivered with a 2-yard touchdown run.
“Played well,” McCarthy said of Jones, who in preseason led the Packers in rushing (19 carries, 105 yards, 5.5-yard average) and also caught six passes, including two for touchdowns. “Instinctive runner. Young. Still has work to do.
“But (we) always liked his run style, and I thought he made good decisions. I thought the goal-line run was excellent, just the way he set the block and cut behind the second block. So I thought he kept me in the run game, kept me confident in the run game, and that’s important. So I thought he did a good job.”
The 5-foot-9, 208-pound Jones left UTEP as the school’s all-time leading rusher, and while undersized, he got Rodgers’ and running backs coach Ben Sirmans’ attention during camp with his willingness to pass block.
“The big thing you always look for with these guys is, what is their fear factor like? What kind of heart do they have?” Sirmans said. “One thing about him is, he has the heart to step up and pass block. He’s not afraid at all. Once you feel comfortable trusting that part of it, now it’s just a matter of keep working with his technique and eventually guys like that that don’t mind stepping up and hitting somebody, they’ll be fine.”
The Packers hope Jones will be more than fine if he has to carry the load against the Cowboys.
“You never like to see any of your boys go down. We lost two guys (against the Bears) and I had to step up,” Jones said. “I enjoyed playing out there. I felt like I did pretty well. I can improve on things, but as time goes on, I’ll get better. I was a little nervous, but I had been waiting for that call.”