Tue, 20 Oct 2020

Green Bay looks to use versatile running game to its advantage in 2020

GREEN BAY - Matt LaFleur got nearly everything he could have wanted out of the Packers' backfield during his inaugural season as head coach and offensive play-caller.

Aaron Jones fashioned his first 1,000-yard rushing season and reset a franchise record with 23 touchdowns (including playoffs), while Jamaal Williams racked up 713 total yards and six TDs as a consistent and reliable change of pace.

LaFleur placed an emphasis on the running game last year and wasn't afraid to be creative with how he deployed his top two backs. In the 19 plays the Packers had Jones and Williams on the field at the same time, the offense scored five touchdowns.

He also expanded their roles in the passing game. Jones and Williams combined for 88 receptions for 727 yards and eight TDs in 2019, a significant uptick from the duo's 53 catches for 416 yards and one touchdown the previous year.

So maybe that productivity is why LaFleur stood at the podium at the NFL Scouting Combine in February and made it known he still had even larger plans for Green Bay's ground game. Jones and Williams were a brilliant one-two punch but LaFleur felt the Packers' offense had room to establish a third threat out of the backfield.

"I think that's one of the tougher positions to play in terms of physicality, and I think you always need multiple guys to get to that finish line," said LaFleur in February. "We'd like to play one more game than we did last season. We're going to need not only those two guys, but I do think we're going to need a third guy to put into that mix moving forward."

Now, the Packers have assembled perhaps their deepest backfield since Ahman Green, Najeh Davenport, William Henderson and the indomitable Tony Fisher filled out Green Bay's depth chart in the early 2000s.

LaFleur's vision fits a popular trend permeating throughout the NFL right now, with teams such as Baltimore, San Francisco and New England building their running games around three, four and sometimes even five different running backs.

The biggest move the Packers made this offseason to deepen their backfield reserve was drafting Boston College's AJ Dillon in the second round (62nd overall) in April. The 6-foot, 247-pound running back's draft stock surged after he clocked an impressive 4.53-second time in the 40-yard dash in Indianapolis to pair with a 40-inch vertical jump and 23 bench-press reps of 225 pounds.

What's more, Dillon carries his weight well. His college position coach, Brian White, said Dillon possessed only 5 percent body fat during spring testing prior to last season.

On paper, Dillon's north-and-south running style makes him an ideal fit for LaFleur's scheme and gives Green Bay a bruising, power running back the offense hasn't possessed since Eddie Lacy.

While unable to work out at Lambeau Field due to league rules, Dillon still trained in Green Bay for a portion of his offseason. So far, he's been saying all the right things in the meeting room.

"He's been great," Jones said. "He's texting me trying to figure out the playbook as fast as possible so he can get it down. He's just ready to learn. He's hungry. I'm excited to work with him and help him as much as possible."

On the opposite side of the spectrum, the Packers re-signed 5-foot-10, 192-pound running back Tyler Ervin in March. A late-season waiver claim from Jacksonville, the fifth-year veteran sparked Green Bay's return units en route to earning a handful of offensive snaps. He picked up 21 yards on three touches.

The Packers also bring back 2019 sixth-round pick Dexter Williams and practice-squad holdover Damarea Crockett. That depth not only is good to have in case of emergency, but it also gives the Packers a half dozen running backs with vastly different running styles, body types and individual strengths.

"That's a really exciting room right now," offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett said. "You've got Aaron and Jamaal. You got 'Swerve' (Ervin). You got a lot of different people there. It's going to be interesting to see how we utilize (everyone)."

Undoubtedly, the ground game will again start with Jones and Jamaal Williams in 2020. In their three seasons together, the two close friends have combined for 5,167 total yards and 47 touchdowns.

At the same time, the more weapons the Packers can develop behind their proven duo, the more challenges it can present to opposing defenses. That's where LaFleur and Hackett want the offense to take a jump in Year 2, as they look to fuse the run, pass and play-action game.

"It's this huge chess match," Hackett said. "It's about having people who can be flexible and then utilizing the flexibility in the proper way. Not just doing it to do it; to use it the right way.

"I think that's something as we get to know some of these new guys who are coming onto our team, the more we'll be able to place them in the right spot."

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