GREEN BAY – In the Packers' preseason finale in Kansas City three weeks ago, running back Aaron Jones reminded everyone of both the burst and shiftiness he displays with the ball in his hands.
Now it's time to do so in a game that counts.
Jones, the second-year pro out of Texas-El Paso, is back after a two-game suspension to start the regular season. The 2017 fifth-round draft pick was reinstated to the 53-man roster on Wednesday and can't wait to get his chance.
"I feel I can be explosive in the run game," Jones said. "I felt like I finished (the preseason) strong. Of course I didn't want to sit out the first two weeks, but I had to do what I could the last preseason game to make sure I was ready for this week."
After missing a large chunk of training camp with a hamstring injury, Jones made his preseason debut in the third game at Oakland. He called that "just getting back into things."
The following week in Kansas City, he posted nine carries for 34 yards and a touchdown, plus three receptions for 21 yards. He showed no ill effects from the hamstring trouble, even running the length of the field to cover kickoffs.
It wasn't so much the numbers he produced but how he produced them that stood out. He cut back a couple of runs that were going nowhere and made things happen in ways reminiscent of a rookie season in which he averaged a hefty 5.5 yards per carry, with a handful of his 81 carries going for 20-plus yards.
"Aaron's obviously an exciting player," Head Coach Mike McCarthy said. "He's done some excellent things in his short time. Availability is his focus, because of the injuries he had last year. He looks to be in good shape."
A knee injury led to Jones shuffling in and out of the lineup at times as a rookie, so he focused in the offseason on strengthening his lower body.
That should also help with the part of his game that remains a bit unproven – pass protection. Fellow running backs Jamaal Williams and Ty Montgomery have executed their blitz pick-ups effectively the first two games of the season, and Jones is determined for there to be no drop-off when he gets the call.
"I'm not blind. I see it written everywhere, so of course, you read it after a while it's something you definitely want to focus on, make sure your screws are tightened and that," Jones said of the importance of protecting Aaron Rodgers. "As soon as you make a mistake on it, that's the first thing they're going to point at.
"They've been doing a great job at it, so I'm just learning from them. You have two good teachers in front of you, if you go out and mess it up, it's on you."
Having studied all his own film, Jones chalked up the occasional hiccups in pass protection as a rookie to technique issues, not a lack of understanding of the offense or scheme. Running backs coach Ben Sirmans has worked with him on the fundamentals and he feels more confident now, though missing a lot of live, padded reps in training camp was not ideal.
That could be one factor behind McCarthy's declaration on Wednesday that Williams and Montgomery would remain in the "first slot" at running back, with Jones taking a "secondary" role in his first game back Sunday at Washington.
All three held feature status at different times last season, and so far Williams and Montgomery have combined to average a solid 4.0 yards per carry in 2018. McCarthy has been optimistic if not bullish on the prospects for the Packers' ground game after two weeks, based on the progress he's seen since the pads went on early in training camp.
Whether one back emerges as a go-to guy for an extended time this year will come down to production, reliability, and health.
"He's a great slasher as a runner and he's always moving downhill," Rodgers said of Jones. "It's good getting him back in the mix."
After the strong preseason finish, Jones called it both "difficult" and "humbling" to sit out the first two games due to an offseason violation of the league's substance abuse policy. He has vowed to never put himself in that situation again, and the next step in putting it all behind him comes Sunday.
"You have to take it in stride, be a man about the mistake you made, and learn from it," he said. "At the end of the day I know I hurt myself. It's something I have to deal with, and when I get my opportunity, make the most of it."