If the 49ers can stop Aaron Jones, the Packers are in serious trouble

If the 49ers can stop Aaron Jones, the Packers are in serious trouble

SANTA CLARA — The Green Bay Packers have one Aaron left, and how he fares will go a long way toward determining if they can upset the 49ers Saturday night.

When Aaron Rodgers went from future Hall of Fame quarterback to a weekly sideshow before being traded to the New York Jets, the Packers were pleasantly surprised to see Jordan Love perform at something approximating a Rodgers level — at a much smaller price tag and with a lot less drama.

Truth be told, Love didn’t truly kick into gear until running back Aaron Jones got healthy enough to balance the Green Bay offense. It turned the Packers from NFC North also-rans to the final wild-card berth with the No. 7 seed.

Jones knifed through the Dallas Cowboys for 118 yards on 21 carries with three touchdowns in a 48-32 upset win. He also rushed for 100-plus yards in each of Green Bay’s last three regular-season games — all wins — to give him 476 yards in his last four games.

It’s not a stretch to suggest that other than a spate of turnovers, the only way the 49ers will lose to the Packers is if Jones is off and running for a fifth consecutive game.

The good news for the 49ers is they haven’t given up an individual 100-yard rusher since Chicago quarterback Justin Fields got 103 yards on 10 carries on Halloween 2021. That was 44 games ago. The last running back was Indianapolis’ Jonathan Taylor, who had 107 yards on 19 attempts the previous week on Oct. 24 at Levi’s Stadium.

Even better news is the 49ers get defensive tackle Arik Armstead back this week after missing the last five games with knee and foot issues. Armstead performed up to his 6-foot-7, 290-pound frame in the playoffs with seven sacks in nine games, but rushing the passer is not where his biggest point of pride lies.

“I believe in stopping the run first,” Armstead said Wednesday. “If you can’t do that, you can’t stop anything. It opens up the whole offense and so no matter who we’re playing it’s stop the run first. If you can’t stop the run, you’re not going to win.”

Jones, at 5-foot-9, 208 pounds, is a towering locker room presence even when slowed by injury. And now that he’s free of knee and hamstring issues that caused him to miss six games, Jones is also dominating on the field as well.

“He can really jump set and get the ball to the perimeter of the defense,” 49ers defensive coordinator Steve Wilks said. “He does a hell of a job making the first guy miss after contact. We’ve got to do a great job with 11 guys swarming and getting to the ball.”

While the 49ers will be without Clelin Ferrell, a starting defensive end whose strength is setting an edge and diverting runs back inside, Armstead’s presence along with Javon Hargrave, Nick Bosa and the rest of the defensive line rotation has been solid most of the year against the run. That makes it easier for linebackers Fred Warner and Dre Greenlaw to clean up, as well as a secondary that is willing to come up and tackle.

There were two notable exceptions with the 49ers on run defense. They surrendered the edge late in a 19-17 loss to Cleveland in Week 6 and gave up 160 yards. Then in a 45-29 win over Arizona in Week 15, the 49ers coughed up 234 yards, including explosive runs of 49 and 44 yards.

So it’s not inconceivable Jones could get loose and make for a long day. Oren Burks, a 49ers linebacker and special teams player, was a teammate in Green Bay and can vouch for Jones’ standing with the Packers.

“Being in that locker room with the Packers, he’s one of the better teammates I’ve been around,” Burks said. “He’s just a great human being. Being a young team, I can definitely see how they kind of look up to him emotionally to get ready to go.”

When you go over 100 yards rushing, but want to do it in style.

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In terms of style, Jones is more in the Elijah Mitchell mode in terms of getting an extra yard or three on each carry.

“He runs hard, man,” Burks said. “He’s faster than people give him credit for. I feel like he reads everything one gap at a time and that’s kind of how the zone scheme works.”

At age 29, Jones is older than most running backs but the time he missed due to injury has served the Packers well late in the season.

“With such a dynamic player, I think it was a blessing in disguise he didn’t have the wear and tear throughout the course of the season,” Green Bay coach Matt LaFleur told reporters. “He’s not the biggest guy, but pound for pound I don’t know if there are any tougher than him. By missing those games, he’s got more tread on the tire.”

After having never had more than two consecutive games of 100 yards or more, Jones tried to explain his recent explosion.

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“We’re playing all together as one,” Jones said. “The blocking unit, they’re doing their thing up front and they’re making it easy for me to just pick and choose which hole I want to run through. It’s just getting back to being healthy and running with something to prove.”

Should Jones continue his carnage, Love becomes a more dangerous passer and the youthful Green Bay receiving corps — 31 of their 32 touchdown passes have been caught by either rookies or second-year players — is also more formidable.

“I don’t think many teams have made (Love) uncomfortable yet, so stopping the run and covering up those easy, open guys is something we have to do,” Bosa said.