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The Takeaway, Packers vs. Lions: Mike McCarthy’s problem with Aaron Jones

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Despite Aaron Jones establishing himself as the Packers’ best option at running back, Mike McCarthy continues to bury him behind inferior players.

Green Bay Packers v Detroit Lions Photo by Leon Halip/Getty Images

Not all the issues with Sunday’s 31-23 loss to the Detroit Lions fall on Mike McCarthy.

With personnel limitations at receiver, McCarthy couldn’t realistically open up the offense to Aaron Rodgers’ apparent specifications. Davante Adams, for all his talent and ability, cannot offset the three rookie wideouts playing alongside him. While the rookies had some positive moments against the Lions, in particular Equanimeous St. Brown’s 54-yard catch and run, the group struggled to consistently separate from defenders. Rodgers spent a handful of plays moving around the pocket waiting for an option, often failing to find one.

Similarly, Rodgers’ two uncharacteristic fumbles behind the line of scrimmage and the officials’ dubious decision to award the Lions a fumble recovery on the game’s first punt fall outside of McCarthy’s control. Bad breaks happen to every team, but so many in a single game can irreparably shift the balance.

But while a head coach cannot control health, fumble recoveries, or officiating, McCarthy did have full power over how the Packers deployed their available personnel, and there lies his biggest failing in Week 5.

Since returning from his two-game suspension, Aaron Jones has established himself as one of Green Bay’s premier offensive weapons. Jones’ explosiveness and ability to break tackles adds a valuable dimension to the offense, and his improvements as a pass protector make him less of a liability in those situations. Specific to Sunday’s game in Detroit, Jones probably ranked behind only Adams in terms of available skill-position players for the Packers.

And yet, the Packers used Jones on only 22 plays from scrimmage, trailing both Jamaal Williams (33) and Ty Montgomery (29). Jones still led the team in rushing with 40 yards on seven carries, which further underscores the bewildering nature of McCarthy’s decision to use him so infrequently. More baffling still, Jones did not receive a single carry during the second half and received just one touch after halftime, a 12-yard checkdown reception during Green Bay’s final possession.

Even with his limited workload, Jones leads all Packers in rushing yards per game, coming in 10 yards ahead of second place (Williams, 39). While McCarthy does need to safeguard against overuse with Jones, who dealt with multiple knee issues as a rookie and missed a chunk of the 2018 preseason with hamstring trouble, the second-year playmaker should never finish third in snaps among Green Bay’s running backs.

That decision alone won’t sink McCarthy’s tenure, but it underscores the frustrations Rodgers and others have vocalized about him.

The Rodgers-Graham connection needs work

The Packers made Jimmy Graham their biggest addition of the offseason, investing a three-year, $30 million contract in the veteran tight end to fill a longstanding void at the position.

On paper, Graham provides the Packers with size and playmaking at the position that they haven’t had since at least Jared Cook and, more likely, since Jermichael Finley last played in Green Bay five years ago. Adding such a tight-end presence, even one as atypical as Graham, made sense given the schematic adjustments McCarthy and returning offensive coordinator Joe Philbin wanted to implement in 2018.

But reality hasn’t matched the expectations, at least not so far. Through five weeks, Graham has produced just one touchdown, putting him on pace for his second-lowest single-season total for his career. Considering that a considerable amount of Graham’s appeal derived from his exploits near the goal line. He led all tight ends in red-zone targets and touchdowns last season, and it does not appear he’ll hit similar marks this year.

Yet, Graham’s production hasn’t only fallen short in the red zone. Against the Lions, he caught only six of the 11 passes sent his direction, a catch rate of just 54.5 percent. That marks the lowest such percentage of any of Green Bay’s wideouts or tight ends Sunday.

And part of that shortfall comes poor timing between receiver and quarterback. In one of Graham’s few targets near the goal line Sunday, Rodgers missed him badly on a back-shoulder throw. Graham struggled to disengage the defender in time for the pass, but Rodgers could have also waited a tick longer before delivering the ball. Regardless, the play never had a chance as executed. At the moment, the two players lack the chemistry necessary to pull off such throws.

Building chemistry requires time, and Rodgers and Graham have played just five meaningful games together. Still, the on-field gap between the two remains large, and it might not narrow quickly enough to make Graham a consistently dangerous part of the offense.