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Packers’ backfield built to keep opponents guessing

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GREEN BAY – They don’t have a nickname. Not yet, at least.

However, the Packers’ three-man backfield of Jamaal Williams, Ty Montgomery and Aaron Jones has brought a dimension to the offense never before seen during Mike McCarthy’s 12-plus seasons as head coach.

The triad contributed to nearly half of the Packers’ 340 total yards last Sunday in Washington, with Montgomery (10 touches for 65 total yards on 20 offensive snaps), Jones (7-47 on 17) and Williams (7-45 on 30) all producing in their own unique way.

Green Bay has been high on the backfield’s potential since it drafted Williams (fourth round out of BYU) and Jones (fifth round out of UTEP) last year, but didn’t really have the chance to see all three in the lineup together until this season.

The key, in McCarthy’s mind, is each has proven a viable option on any down at this point in his career.

“The beautiful thing about it is all three guys can play three downs so we could really get into just a pure rotation,” McCarthy said. “Having that combination … I think it’s a really good thing. When you look at Ty and you look at Jamaal and Aaron, their abilities to play through all the different concepts doesn’t handcuff you.”

The committee approach to a backfield isn’t a new concept. McCarthy recalls featuring four running backs (Ricky Williams, Jerald Moore, Chad Morton and Terry Allen) during his first year as the New Orleans Saints’ offensive coordinator in 2000.

While Williams was the obvious starter back then, the Saints had different names for packages incorporating their other backs: Oklahoma, Sooner and TA. Over the years, two- and three-headed backfields have become commonplace in the NFL.

Nineteen running backs carried the ball more than 250 times back in 2000. Comparatively, there were only eight who eclipsed that threshold last year.

Last February, Philadelphia and New England brought 11 combined running backs into Super Bowl LII. Six touched the ball in the game, with only one (LeGarrette Blount) receiving more than 10 carries.

Matchup football has changed the framework of NFL backfields and Green Bay is no exception with Williams, Montgomery and Jones each bringing a different element to the offense. While any running back obviously wants to carry the ball 20 times per game, the Packers see the upside in spreading the workload.

“You really don’t get a bead on anybody when they come into a game,” Jones said. “Usually you just see a third-down back or a scat-back and you know you get certain packages together for that and defenses know what to expect. If you have three backs who can go every down, you can keep them guessing.”

From a running-game perspective, Williams, Montgomery and Jones all have individual 100-yard rushing performances on their resumes, but being an accountable and trustworthy three-down back goes beyond rushing yards and touchdowns.

That’s where position coach Ben Sirmans comes in. Sirmans not only supervised Montgomery’s transition from receiver to running back two years ago, but he’s also overseen the development of all three running backs in pass protection.

That aspect of the job never has been more important than now with quarterback Aaron Rodgers still working through the knee injury he suffered against Chicago in the opener.

Williams and Montgomery have been up to the challenge so far this season. After making his regular-season debut in Washington, Jones hopes to follow suit.

“That’s pretty much the biggest thing,” said Jones, who rushed for 42 yards on six carries last week. “On third down, you have to be able to protect or be able to catch the ball. If you can do both, you can be a good back in this league. That’s where I’m working to get to.”

Having three established backfield options is fine by Rodgers, who pulled several late-night study sessions with Montgomery and a carousel of incoming running backs in 2016 after Eddie Lacy and James Starks missed extended time with injuries.

Rodgers praised Williams for putting on a pass-blocking clinic two weeks ago against Minnesota and credits Montgomery for the potential matchup problems he creates for a defense when he motions from the backfield.

Jones, who won two NFL Rookie of the Week awards a year ago, completes the trifecta with a dynamic running style that’s virtually unmatched during Rodgers’ time in Green Bay.

“He’s a different type of runner than we’ve had here,” Rodgers said. “He’s very similar to Ryan Grant, I think, who we had for years with his slashing style. He’s probably a little more elusive in the open field than Ryan was and maybe slightly greater top-end speed. We’ve got to find ways to get him the ball.

“And then what Ty’s doing out of the backfield, we’ve got to keep expanding his role, and then Jamaal has proven he’s a three-down back. We need to find a way to get those guys in there in their comfort zones and give them more opportunities.”

Several Super Bowl contenders, most notably the New England Patriots, have utilized deep backfields to their advantage when tailoring game plans to specific opponents.

The opening quarter of the season has been geared towards developing chemistry and rhythm. With Jones back in the fold after serving a two-game suspension, the Packers feel they’re in a position to capitalize on their depth at running back.

No, Green Bay’s top three backs don’t have a nickname or moniker. So far, they’re more concerned about building momentum going into this Sunday’s matchup with Buffalo.

“It just feels like high school all over again where everyone was a star and everyone can get the ball all over again,” Williams said. “So it really just makes it more fun for us. Every time we get the ball, we're out there more fresh already. So there's no doubt in our mind that one of us should break one and make some plays, make some explosive plays.”

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