GREEN BAY — Luckily, the cameras didn’t catch Clay Matthews’ facial expression as Jamaal Williams went whizzing by him on the Green Bay Packers’ sideline last Sunday night.
There the Packers veteran outside linebacker stood, in his parka and street clothes — inactive because of a groin injury — watching Williams sprint to the end zone for a 54-yard touchdown on a screen pass from Brett Hundley. The rookie running back had just given the Packers a 14-6 lead over the Pittsburgh Steelers, and as the biggest play of Williams’ young career was unfolding, Matthews was … uh, less than thrilled.
“I was cussing myself out on the sideline,” Matthews confessed.
Because Matthews is the commissioner of the Packers linebackers’ fantasy football league — yes, they really do have one — and after wisely picking Williams up when fellow rookie Aaron Jones suffered a knee injury against Chicago on Nov. 12, Matthews had made the not-so-brilliant decision to sit Williams on his bench and start the Philadelphia Eagles’ LaGarrette Blount in his stead in the wake of the Packers’ shutout loss to Baltimore the previous week.
“The first game, he did well. And then against the Ravens, he got me like six points, so I sat him,” said Matthews, who was facing former Packers linebacker Jayrone Elliott in his matchup last week. “And he takes the screen pass and 29 points later, I end up losing to Jayrone.”
The Packers ended up losing to the Steelers, but in the process, a star was born. Or, at least, a legitimate lead running back. And with Jones inching closer to his return, the Packers’ running game might have the 1-2 punch that coach Mike McCarthy always talks about as being his ideal backfield situation.
“I think Jamaal has proven himself,” McCarthy said as the Packers prepared for Sunday’s crucial game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Lambeau Field. “Obviously we played him all three downs. I thought he was excellent in the situational opportunities he had. I would say his numbers the last game reflect that of a feature back.
“I wasn't surprised. You go back to training camp, he was the lead guy in that rookie class, and that was for a reason. I think he's getting more comfortable with doing more things with him. But he's a complete running back.”
Against the Steelers, Williams finished with 135 total yards from scrimmage: 66 rushing yards on 21 carries, including a 4-yard touchdown run, and 69 receiving yards on four catches, including the touchdown on the screen pass. The 25 combined touches were the most by a Packers running back this season, and over the past three games, Williams is averaging 22.7 touches per game, having carried the ball 59 times and caught nine passes. Only one NFL running back — Atlanta's Tevin Coleman — has carried the ball that much over the past three weeks.
“I feel like I’m a workhorse, and during the game I just get stronger and stronger, really,” Williams said. “It’s just how I run, every time it’s just hard and downhill, and when I see those openings, I just take it. I really just try to be consistent and the way I run the ball, make sure defenders know every time they try to tackle me it’s going to be a hard tackle. So they’re going to feel me, just every quarter (of the game). That’s how I like to play.”
Williams finished his college career at Brigham Young having carried the ball 726 times — including 234 times as a senior last season, when he set the school record for career rushing yards (3,901). According to Packers offensive coordinator Edgar Bennett — himself a workhorse back during his playing career with the Packers — the proof that Williams has what it takes to fill that role is seen in his running style late in games.
“You go back and look at these last couple games, he’s certainly shown the ability where he can handle it,” Bennett said. “As far as getting stronger, you look at, does he continue to break tackles in the fourth quarter? And I would say yes. So as far as handling the workload and being able to be productive as the game progresses, I think he’s shown that he’s capable of doing that.”
Williams may not have to keep doing that, however. Jones’ recovery from his knee injury has been quicker than anticipated, and he was able to work on a limited basis in practice during the week. While he’s not expected to play against the Buccaneers, he could be back in the lineup Dec. 10 at Cleveland. Jones had a pair of 100-yard rushing games before his knee injury, and the 5-foot-9, 208-pound Jones is a quicker, more sudden back than the more physical, gritty 6-foot, 213-pound Williams.
“It’s kind of something we’re looking forward to, especially now that you’ve got two different styles,” running backs coach Ben Sirmans said. “Both guys have shown that they have their own methods of moving the chains. I think that they can work together. Now, one guy isn’t getting an overload so they can stay fresh. I think that will be more productive and lead to more production for the offense. It’s actually a formula I’m looking forward to figuring out.”
Until then, Williams is happy to carry the load — and, if necessary, carry Matthews’ fantasy team.
“I feel great being back there now and just hearing everybody especially my teammates encouraging me, telling me I’m doing a great job and just keep it going and keep working hard from there,” Williams said. “When I first got back there, it was just running. You didn’t really understand the offense yet, you’re just out there showing your talents. But now I feel more comfortable in the offense, I know where the blocks are happening, I know how to set them up and the defenses. So it’s really just getting time and getting comfortable back there.”