GREEN BAY — Aaron Jones and Jamaal Williams haven’t gotten to talk very much with their new boss just yet. But the Green Bay Packers running backs have done their research on new head coach Matt LaFleur — and his affinity for running the football.
“Oooooooh, we’re ready to go. Me and Aaron, we’re ready to go. We’re ready to get loose,” Williams said. “I’m just looking forward to seeing what this running game is going to do, see what it’s about. I see he’s top 10 at running the ball, so your boys are happy about that. We’re ready to run this ball.”
While it’s hard to imagine the Packers becoming a run-first outfit with two-time NFL MVP Aaron Rodgers at quarterback, LaFleur has said on multiple occasions since his Jan. 11 introduction as head coach that he believes in the value of running the ball and how it could lighten the load on his signal-caller.
Plus, one of the chief tenets of LaFleur’s philosophy is the importance of committing to the run to set up a productive play-action passing game.
“I think anytime you can take as much off the quarterback as possible, that only helps them out in the long run,” LaFleur said. “Certainly Aaron’s got incredible talent, and we’re going to definitely showcase that talent. But I just think in your early downs, the more you can stay balanced and keep the defense off balance and keep them guessing whether we’re going to run the ball or pass the ball, I think that it opens up opportunities for big plays down the field.”
As for Jones and Williams, who combined for 1,192 yards and 11 touchdowns on 254 carries (4.7-yard average), LaFleur said he’s liked what he’s seen of them on film thus far.
“I’m excited (about them),” LaFleur said. “I’ve watched quite a bit of those guys (and) I think Jamaal and Aaron are two quality backs that bring some versatility. They’re a little bit different in their style. We’re going to find a way to maximize their strengths and let that show through on the field.”
That excitement goes both ways. Both Jones and Williams read up on LaFleur’s history, learning that he’s worked with and under Los Angeles Rams head coach Sean McVay and San Francisco 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan — both of whom value the run.
But what really got their attention was the way LaFleur called plays for the Tennessee Titans last season — and how often the plays he called were runs. According to NFL statistics, the Titans ran the ball 48.4 percent of the time with LaFleur calling the plays. By comparison, the Packers ran it on just 32.5 percent of their offensive snaps with head coach Mike McCarthy (12 games) and interim head coach Joe Philbin (four games) calling the plays.
Clearly, having Rodgers at quarterback instead of Titans still-developing quarterback Marcus Mariota will influence LaFleur's thinking next season, but it's obvious he isn't afraid to call runs.
In addition, new offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett also has a history of committing to running the ball. While Hackett was calling plays in Jacksonville in 2017 and for most of 2018, the Jaguars ran the ball 45.3 percent of the time.
“I saw what (LaFleur) did in Tennessee, so I’m excited,” Jones said in an ESPN Wisconsin interview from the Super Bowl earlier this month. “And the new OC, he ran the ball in Jacksonville as well. So I’m excited.”
Jones also has studied LaFleur’s outside zone run scheme, something that was a component of the Packers’ run game under McCarthy but will be LaFleur’s bread-and-butter.
“I feel like it’s a pretty good fit. I’ve had a couple touchdown runs on the outside zone, like the one this past year against Atlanta. That was an outside zone,” Jones said, referring to his 29-yard touchdown run on Dec. 9 in a 34-20 win over the Falcons at Lambeau Field. “I didn’t run outside zone in college or anything, so my first time running it was my rookie year in Green Bay. I’m excited to get to it. I feel like I’m getting more comfortable with it.”
Williams, meanwhile, said it will be important that LaFleur’s game-planning during the week and play-calling on game day are consistent — something he said wasn’t the case last season.
“Our coaching and then how we played on the field weren’t going together,” Williams said. “I felt like our game plan wasn’t matching what we were doing in practice going into the game.”
Said Jones: “This is my first time having a new coaching staff. They’re new, I feel like I’m new. I feel like everybody’s starting fresh. It’s different.”
NOTES: The Packers named Kevin Koger offensive quality control coach and Jason Vrable offensive assistant. Koger has worked the past six season in college, the last three coaching wide receivers at Eastern Kentucky, adding special teams coordinator to his duties in 2018. Vrable spent the past two seasons as an offensive assistant for the New York Jets, and the four before that with the Buffalo Bills, working as an offensive quality control coach from 2013-15 and then as an assistant quarterbacks coach in 2016.