The Green Bay Packers have developed one of the best one-two punches of running backs in the NFL this season. While some other teams around the league have leaned heavily on a single excellent running back, the Packers have received a breakout season from Aaron Jones while getting major contributions from fellow third-year pro Jamaal Williams.
To date, the carries between the two are almost exactly a two-to-one breakdown. Jones has carried the football 135 times, while Williams has 65 rushing attempts. The two players’ usage has been closer to even in the passing game, with Jones responsible for 46 targets and 35 receptions to Williams’ 29 and 25, respectively. That is a 65/35 breakdown of intended touches through ten games.
Furthermore, the way the players have rotated has kept Jones fresh for fourth quarters, when he has typically been the player on the field to run off clock with a lead. Snap counts to this point in the season are skewed even more towards Williams than the touches are: Jones has taken the field for just under 60 percent of the Packers’ offensive snaps, while Williams has been on the field for 37 percent.
However, in those ten games, Jones has proven to be the more effective player all-around, the back who causes the most matchup problems for defenses and who contributes most to the Packers’ offensive success. In a breakdown of likely NFC playoff teams on Monday, ESPN’s Bill Barnwell discussed each back’s contributions to the offense in terms of Expected Points Added. Here’s what he had to say, with emphasis added:
In 180 snaps with (Jones) on the field and Williams on the sideline, the Packers have averaged 0.22 EPA per play, which would make them the best offense in football on a play-by-play basis. In 127 snaps with Williams on the field and Jones sitting out, though, the Packers have actually been a net negative on offense at -0.05 EPA per play, which is the equivalent of the 2019 Giants, who rank 25th in expected points added. If one back makes you the best offense in football and the other back makes you the Giants, I would go with the first guy.
It’s pretty clear to see from this that the Packers’ offense functions better as a whole when Jones is on the field versus when Williams is the lone running back. (Note that this does not account for plays when both are on the field — something that will come up again in a bit.) Some of this is because of Jones’ better efficiency moving the football, but it also likely results in part from his superior athleticism making him a bigger matchup problem for defenses. Williams is a nice player, to be sure, and he has a role to play on this team; he just does not force defenses to change what they’re doing to account for him.
Jones clearly does — or else, if defenses choose not to respect him properly, they pay the price. The Chiefs saw this perhaps more than any other team, as Jones lined up wide on a number of occasions, drawing single-coverage from a linebacker and burning him regularly en route to 159 rushing yards and 226 total yards from scrimmage.
This season, Jones has been the third-most efficient runner in the NFL based on Football Outsiders’ DVOA. His +18.2% value puts him behind only Christian McCaffrey and Ezekiel Elliott. Meanwhile, Williams does not qualify for the top leaderboard, but ranks well behind Jones with a DVOA of -5.3%. Interestingly, Jones’ yards-per-carry average is actually a tenth of a yard lower than Williams’, but the difference is explained largely by two factors: success rate* and touchdowns.
Jones has 11 rushing touchdowns, tying him for the top mark in the NFL. Per Football Outsiders, he also boasts the league’s best success rate on the ground (among qualifying backs) at 61%. Although FO has not published success rate numbers for backs with Williams’ level of carries, Warren Sharp of SharpFootball.com has him at 51%, which would put him closer to the middle of the pack in the NFL — for example, FO’s rate of 47% for McCaffrey sat him at 18th among 35 qualifiers prior to week 11.
Interestingly, FO rates Williams’ efficiency as a receiver highly, quite a bit more so than Jones. Jamaal’s +28.4% receiving DVOA ranks him sixth among qualified running backs, while Jones sits 13th at +9.2%. As with Jones’ gap in rushing, this is due in part to touchdowns, as Williams has five this season to Jones’ three, and has done so in fewer targets. Interestingly, however, Jones has a better yards per reception average (10.1 vs. 6.6), and even if you erased Jones’ absurd day in Kansas City, the two players are even at 6.6.
The fact remains that Jones is the more explosive player in both facets of the game, while somehow remaining the more consistently productive player when running the ball — and by a large margin. As such, the Packers would do well to reallocate their running back usage in the critical games down the stretch, starting this Sunday night against the 49ers.
Ideally, the team should go from the 60/40 breakdown of snaps and touches between the two players to a 75/25 or even 80/20 split, at least in games that project to be competitive. With a defense that has struggled in giving up yardage since around week four, the Packers would benefit from the consistent production Jones provides as a means of controlling the football. Furthermore, Barnwell’s EPA discussion underscores the fact that the offense is simply and clearly better when Jones is on the field instead of Williams.
Obviously, there are times when using Williams is the right play. Certain situations call for a more bruising runner as opposed to Jones’ more fluid, explosive style. Anecdotally, it often appears that Williams picks up three yards when a play is blocked for no gain. But Jones has shown great ability in short-yardage situations as well, with eight of his rushing touchdowns coming from five yards out or less.
Using the two backs on the field together is also a fun wrinkle for Matt LaFleur, and one that has been a challenge for defenses. With Jones often splitting or motioning out of the backfield, opposing teams must decide how to account for the matchup nightmare that he presents on the boundary while also respecting Williams’ physical running style.
To be sure, deciding on how to divide up the touches between two good backs is a good problem to have. But as the Packers get into the final stretch and a push for home-field advantage, it’s clear that Jones is a special player and one who is essential to the team’s offensive success.