GREEN BAY — Aaron Jones didn’t want to call his return to practice Saturday a comeback. He also didn’t even want to call the hamstring issue that sidelined him for six practices an injury.
Choose your nomenclature how you wish. What mattered most was the Green Bay Packers third-year running back was back on the field after missing more than a week of work — including the Family Night practice and the team’s 28-26 preseason-opening victory over the Houston Texans at Lambeau Field — because of his hamstring.
And given how vital Jones figures to be to new head coach Matt LaFleur’s balanced offensive approach, it was the best news the Packers offense could have gotten after a day off.
“I’m ready. I’m ready to go,” Jones said after being limited to only individual drills during Saturday’s practice. “It felt good to have a helmet and shoulder pads on, be running around with the guys. It’s always exciting to be back out there.”
Jones indicated the Packers were overly cautious with his injury — “I wouldn’t even call it an injury; it was just tightness,” he said of the hamstring — and insisted that had it been the regular season, he would have played in a game and the medical staff would have cleared him to do so. That said, although he didn’t especially enjoy his time in the injury group, he appreciated it.
“I want to be out there every day, but it’s a long season. So I appreciate it. I appreciate the rest,” Jones said. “As a running back, you take a lot of pounding. So I’m not against those (days off).”
It’s no wonder the Packers would want to be cautious with Jones, who is their most explosive back and probably fits LaFleur’s outside zone run-blocking scheme the best of any back on the roster.
Through his first two NFL seasons, Jones has carried 214 times for 1,176 yards (5.5-yard average) and 12 touchdowns. He led the league in 2018 in yards per attempt (5.5), but he also played in only 12 games because of a two-game suspension to start the year and a knee injury that ended his season on Dec. 16 at Chicago, when he went down on his fourth carry of the game.
All told, Jones has missed six late-season games the past two years with knee injuries, so he spent the offseason working to strengthen his lower body while also adjusting his diet in hopes of improving his durability.
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“We’re going to be pretty smart about it,” LaFleur replied when asked how he planned to reintegrate Jones into the offense. “Certainly, he’s a great player. And it’s always good to have him back out on the field. I love him as a person. He’s a great person and (we) can’t wait to get him out (in team periods).
“Today, we were a little bit slow with him in terms of just doing individual (drills), but we’ll slowly integrate him back into what we’re doing.”
With Jones and fellow third-year back Jamaal Williams (hamstring) both sidelined for extended periods — Williams remains out and hasn’t practiced since July 28 — the Packers have been able to get work for their other backs (rookie Dexter Williams, former practice-squad halfback Tra Carson, recent additions Darrin Hill and Keith Ford). With Jones still skipping 11-on-11 periods, it was Dexter Williams and Carson who worked with quarterback Aaron Rodgers and the No. 1 offense.
That offense should look different once Jones is part of it, given how his cut-and-go, quick-hitting style fits the outside zone scheme. Jones said he felt he picked up the offense relatively quickly during the offseason program and said he wasn’t concerned that his time on the sideline slowed his acclimation to the system. He did admit, though, that the passing game and pass protections have required an adjustment, which means getting work in those areas in the coming weeks should benefit him.
The Packers play at Baltimore on Thursday and are expected to play their starters on both sides of the ball for at least a series or two. Against the Texans, LaFleur sat 16 of the team’s preferred 22 starters, and Jones likely would not have played in that game even if he had been healthy.
Jones understands that LaFleur’s passing game is reliant on a successful running game setting up play-action passes and keeping defenses guessing with a more balanced run/pass ratio than the Packers have shown in recent years, so he knows his role will be vital.
“You’ve got to get the run going to be balanced. If you don’t get the run going, then they’re just going to throw an extra defensive back in there and drop everybody,” Jones said. “The run game has to be going in order for the play-action to work. If not, they’re not going to bite on it. They’re just going to drop. We love to see when a linebacker runs up, turns around and is hauling (expletive) out of there.”
Jones said the Packers did run some outside zone last season, especially during the second half of the year. His 29-yard touchdown run in the Packers’ 34-20 win over Atlanta last December came on the same kind of run LaFleur’s scheme emphasizes, Jones said.
“For some reason toward the later half of the season we started running more outside zone,” Jones said.
Asked how much preseason work he needs to be ready for the Sept. 5 regular-season opener at Chicago, Jones replied, “Just enough to be ready. I don’t know what a certain number is, but just enough to feel comfortable. It would be nice to get some reps and get your feet wet. It just takes a little bit off you when you do get to the regular season.”