The loss of Jordy Nelson to injured reserve this season has proven to be a tough pill to swallow for the Green Bay Packers’ passing offense.
But where would it be without James Jones?
The nine-year NFL veteran, in his second go-around in Green Bay, has been the most productive big-play weapon on an offense surprisingly in short supply. Not only does Jones lead the team in receiving touchdowns with seven, but his 11 catches of 25 or more yards is tied for fourth in the NFL. He is even better in the yards-per-catch category – second, at 19.7 among receivers averaging at least two catches per game. Teammates Davante Adams (9.5) and Randall Cobb (11.5) pale in comparison.
Like Cobb, Jones has played in every game this season while other Packers receivers have struggled to stay in the lineup. Adams missed three games and has been slowed by an ankle injury. Rookie Ty Montgomery has missed the last six games, also with an ankle. And second-year pro Jared Abbrederis, who started the season on the practice squad, missed two games before returning last week at Detroit.
For the above reasons, Jones’ return has been valuable. But have his highlight plays prevented other young receivers – like fan favorite Jeff Janis – from seeing the field more often and bringing another element to the Packers’ offense? Is maybe Jones’ greatest weakness (a lack of quickness to gain separation) beginning to surpass his greatest strength (being strong at the point of attack and making the difficult catches look easy)?
With four games remaining in the regular season, the Packers are still trying to find their flow in the passing game. Jones has had more than two catches in a game only once (at Minnesota on Nov. 22) in the last eight games.
Consider this, as well: Of Jones’ 11 catches of 25 yards or more, four came on plays in which quarterback Aaron Rodgers capitalized on defensive penalties that gave the Packers “free plays.” Three of the other big plays came when Rodgers broke the pocket and made plays on the run, including a fourth-and-14 desperation conversion at Carolina in which Jones made a leaping grab over cornerback Josh Norman.
To Rodgers’ and Jones’ credit, they have a knack for making such plays. But there is danger in counting on or planning for them each week. So, when those plays have been missing, the Packers’ passing offense has suffered.
Jones’ longest reception of the season – a 65-yard catch-and-run touchdown against the St. Louis Rams – was one of four other catches of 25 yards or more that came within the design or intent of the called play. As the outside receiver in a stacked formation with Cobb, Jones ran a deep crossing route and was able to take Rodgers’ laser pass to the end zone.
Jones, however, spends most of his time running routes between the numbers and the sideline, where it becomes more difficult to gain separation from cornerbacks in man coverage. Against the Lions last week, he ran 21 of his 34 routes there based off film review by Packer Report. On five plays ,he appeared to run routes to set up other receivers. And on four of his routes, he began tighter to the hash marks in stacked receiver sets, similar to his long touchdown against the Rams.
Jones was targeted just three times in 36 pass attempts at Detroit. On one of those plays, it appeared Jones was open, but Rodgers saw him late. A high pass over the middle resulted in a Glover Quin interception. Had it not been for a 19-yard catch to set up a lateral late in the game, Jones would have gone three of the last four games without a catch. He played 86 snaps in the Nov. 15 game against the Lions and another 78 against the Chicago Bears on Thanksgiving but was shutout in eight targets. The Packers lost both games, scoring just 16 and 13 points respectively.
Had Jones not been released by the New York Giants in training camp, the Packers may have been forced to play Janis on the outside more. Despite possessing skills that may be able to open up the Packers offense, Janis has been relegated to a limited role this season. An injury to Montgomery gave him a season-high 40 snaps Oct. 18 against the San Diego Chargers, which he turned into two catches for 79 yards. But since, Janis’ big plays have come on kickoff returns. The Packers have given him a handful of deep shots down the sideline but have only been able to cash in on a 50-yard pass interference penalty at Minnesota.
Even with Adams having trouble getting open on the other side of Jones, the Packers have stuck with their three-eceiver formations as their base set. Opposing defenses have been able to focus on Cobb more in the slot and thus the speedy 5-foot-10 receiver is having a substandard season himself, albeit playing with a sprained shoulder.
But Cobb has 27 catches over the last six games. Adams does, too, even at just a 44 percent catch rate. Jones, on the other hand, has just 10. His chemistry with Rodgers has only accounted for a handful of plays during the stretch.
At 31, Jones is no longer the complement he often was to a cast of all-star receivers during his first seven years in Green Bay. Without Nelson, and with a young receiving corps still growing or not yet trustworthy by the team’s brass, he is playing more as a No. 1 receiver.
There might be a reason that two other teams cut Jones in 2015 just as there is a reason the Packers brought him back. The combination of the two has the Packers in a complicated spot with their offense headed into the final quarter of the regular season.
Matt Tevsh has covered the Packers since 1996. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org