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Without AJ Dillon, Jamaal Williams — and likely Aaron Jones — Matt LaFleur faces big game-plan challenges

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williams photo 11-4

Packers' Jamaal Williams tries to run past Vikings' Anthony Harris on Sunday at Lambeau Field. On Tuesday, Williams and rookie linebacker Kamal Martin were ruled out of Thursday's game due to contact-tracing issues.

GREEN BAY — Aaron Rodgers was quick to point out Tuesday that the Green Bay Packers offense has had to function without all kinds of key pieces so far this season.

No. 1 wide receiver Davante Adams for two games because of a hamstring injury. No. 1 running back Aaron Jones for two games (and counting) because of a calf injury. All-Pro left tackle David Bakhtiari for two games (so far) because of a chest injury. No. 2 wide receiver Allen Lazard for four games (and perhaps a fifth) after core muscle surgery.

The spiel wasn’t nearly as concise or catchy as the Packers quarterback’s infamous R-E-L-A-X line in 2014, but the intent of his message was essentially the same: Thursday night’s matchup with the San Francisco 49ers will be a major challenge for an offense that could be without all three of its true running backs with Jones still iffy and Jamaal Williams and AJ Dillon on the reserve/COVID-19 list, but don’t start panicking just yet.

Because he and head coach Matt LaFleur certainly aren’t.

“I don’t feel like we’re ever hamstrung, based on some of the things that we’ve done,” Rodgers posited during a Zoom call Tuesday afternoon. “We’ve dealt with a lot of different guys being out this season already. … We’ve had to mix some personnel (groups) up and move some guys around to try and get our best guys on the field and give us some advantages through the use of personnel. That’s not going to change.

“Obviously, it’s disappointing with AJ and Jamaal not being able to go, especially Jamaal because his was a contact-tracing issue, but Matt has done a good job of mixing the personnel up to find ways to get our guys on the field. And it’s really no different. So, I don’t look at it as us being hamstrung. It’s just how 2020 has gone for us.”

Perhaps, but even if this is the norm for 2020, it’s still highly unusual — and it all started with Dillon, whose COVID-19 test before Sunday’s loss to Minnesota came back positive on Monday morning. Then came the news Tuesday that Williams and inside linebacker Kamal Martin had both been deemed “high-risk close contacts” of Dillon. Per the agreed-upon NFL and NFL Players Association’s COVID-19 protocols, high-risk close contact individual must be isolated for at least five days, even if they test negative and remain asymptomatic.

Add in the fact that Jones is expected to miss his third straight game — LaFleur said Tuesday evening he would be given until game time to prove to the medical staff he can play — and the Packers will likely be down to practice-squadder Dexter Williams and returner Tyler Ervin, a versatile Swiss Army knife-type player who isn’t a traditional straight-line running back, in the backfield against the 49ers.

“I mean, that’s what we have to work with,” LaFleur said. “Those guys work hard and they’ve been a part of our system now for over a year. They know what the expectations and the standards are. And we’ll see come game time if Aaron Jones can go or not.

“It’s unfortunate. That’s why we talk to our guys about making sure they’re keeping their distance and doing everything they can so they aren’t deemed a high-risk candidate, in terms of keeping space and wearing a mask and just doing everything the right way. It’s unfortunate, but it is the situation that we’re dealing with and we’re going to adjust to.“

LaFleur did say Lazard, who has been designated for return from injured reserve, is “really close” to returning to game action but stopped short of saying he would play against the 49ers.

In the two games Jones has missed, Jamaal Williams has gained 216 total yards from scrimmage, rushing 35 times for 152 yards with one touchdown and a 2-point conversion and catching 10 passes for 64 yards. Martin, a rookie fifth-round pick from Minnesota, has started the past two games at inside linebacker after starting the season on injured reserve with a knee injury.

Despite those two players needing to be quarantined because of their contact with Dillon, the NFL reiterated during a conference call with reporters Tuesday that Thursday’s game remains on.

“We’ve been in that scenario many, many, many times over the 13 weeks that we’ve been doing this,” NFL chief medical officer Dr. Allen Sills. “We want to be as safe as possible. That’s why we go through the detailed exercise of contact tracing. That’s why we go through the detailed exercise of identifying high-risk contacts.”

The Packers and Baltimore Ravens’ high-risk close-contact situations prompted an elevation of the league’s game-day rules after Dillon and Ravens defensive back Marlon Humphrey played in games over the weekend and later learned they had contracted COVID-19.

According to a memo sent to all 32 teams, sideline bench areas will now span 60 yards — from one 20-yard line to the other— to allow for improved physical distancing among players and coaches, and the league is also mandating face coverings for all players during pregame and postgame interactions, either on the field or in the locker room. The league is also strongly recommending masks to be worn on the sideline by any player “not participating on the field or about to enter the game.”

Adams described the work week at Lambeau Field as “a little weird” because Dillon’s positive test put the NFL’s intensive protocols into effect within the facility.

“It’s a little bit of an adjustment, but you’ve just got to block it out and stay focused on what we’ve got to stay focused on, especially this week more than anything, controlling what you can and just kind of following the protocols and taking it day by day,” Adams said.

Nonetheless, Rodgers said he didn’t have any reservations about playing Thursday’s game.

“We’re just trying to be smart about our interactions, where we’re going outside of work, and just understand this is a part of it,” Rodgers said. “This is the NFL in 2020, and a lot of people are dealing with it.”


Photos: Packers' 2020 season so far in pictures

Photos: Packers' 2020 season in pictures

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