With sure-handed receiver Donald Driver missing his first game to injury in seven years, Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers needed one of his less recognizable targets to step up during Sunday night’s game.
Cue James Jones.
The fourth-year wide receiver had a breakout game, tallying career highs in catches (eight) and yards (123) in the Packers’ 45-7 victory over the Dallas Cowboys.
“James, when he gets into a groove, he starts going and it’s a rhythm. When you get out there and feel that rhythm, it’s almost like you can’t be stopped,” receiver Brett Swain said. “James had a great night and it’s a great feeling to get in that zone and feel like you can’t miss anything — you run the right routes and the ball is just right there all night.”
Jones hasn’t been able to get into a rhythm on a consistent basis this season, however.
He had zero-catch outings against the New York Jets on Oct. 31 and Miami Dolphins on Oct. 17, but sandwiched in a 107-yard performance against the Minnesota Vikings on Oct. 24. While coming under criticism for dropping what might have been a 72-yard touchdown against the Jets, Jones said he needed more opportunities. He got them on Sunday, catching eight of the nine balls thrown his way.
Jones, who’s in the final year of his contract, entered the Cowboys game with 19 receptions for 284 yards and one touchdown. His output on Sunday night’s biggest stage showed he can be a solid No. 2 receiver in the NFL.
“James stepped up big-time this week. Driver went down and I’m just happy James (was) consistent and he’s stepping up into his role,” running back Brandon Jackson said.
Jones had a rough start to his night but he was able to shake it off.
On the Packers’ sixth offensive play from scrimmage, Jones caught a 13-yard pass from Rodgers, cut to the middle of the field and fumbled. Fellow receiver Jordy Nelson pounced on the loose ball and kept the drive alive.
Jones wasn’t going to let the early miscue ruin his night.
“James comes off the field and says, ‘Hey. guys, my bad. Let’s pick it up. I’m going to go out and make a play,’ and he did,” Swain said.
Jones’ defining moment during his career night was a third-quarter touchdown. He pulled in a quick slant from Rodgers at the 6-yard line and muscled his way into the end zone for a 10-yard score.
Jones, who hadn’t had more than five catches in a game this season, has 27 on the season. He’s on pace to record a career high in receptions, topping his 2007 rookie total of 47.
Coming into the week, the Packers’ receivers talked amongst themselves and knew they needed to fill the void of not having Driver on the field. The 12-year veteran, who aggravated his injured his quadriceps during the Packers’ win over the Jets, was the biggest cheerleader while his teammates prepared for the Cowboys game.
“He’s in the room encouraging everybody. ‘Hey, I’m down, you guys, it’s time to go,’” Swain said. “As a receiving corps, we all get together, we work hard through the week and just hope for the best.”
The receivers collectively hauled in 27 Rodgers passes for 289 yards and three scores.
Jones led the way in catches and yards, but Greg Jennings added seven receptions for 80 yards and a touchdown for his fourth consecutive game of at least six catches. Rodgers connected with seven different targets.
“Driver is such a big loss in the offense. You never know which way you’re going to go with offense,” Swain said. “But they did put in some big-four packages where we got four receivers on the field and guys like James Jones stepped up and have huge games like that — Jordy (Nelson) making big catches on third down. When a guy goes down, you need plays like that.”
Coach Mike McCarthy liked the way Jones performed in his role.
“Thought James played very well,” McCarthy said. “Had a number of players that had a lot more opportunities than they had in the past, James in particular. He did very good in yards after the catch. That is something we knew we needed to do going into the game. One-on-one opportunities on the perimeter. Want to get the ball out of Aaron’s hands quickly, get it in the receivers’ hands, let those guys go to work.”
Nelson and his fellow receivers didn’t put any extra pressure on themselves to have solid games in place of the Packers’ all-time leader in receptions.
“Last week at New York, we played a lot without Donald. We knew going in he wasn’t going to play, so that’s nothing,” Nelson said. “It’s different not having him out there, it’s just more reps. We’ve run all the plays, we’re in the same situations as the other games, it’s just more reps. I don’t think there’s any added pressure, we just went out there and played.”
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Bill Huber is publisher of Packer Report magazine and PackerReport.com and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at email@example.com, or leave him a question in Packer Report’s subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at twitter.com/packerreport and Facebook under Bill Huber.