Packers WR James Jones finds his niche

December, 18, 2012
12/18/12
2:45
PM ET
James Jones Brian Cassella/Chicago Tribune/Getty ImagesCutting down on drops has allowed James Jones to become Green Bay's top option in the red zone.
James Jones isn't the Green Bay Packers' leading receiver. That honor goes to Randall Cobb (77 receptions). Jones isn't the most explosive receiver on the Packers' roster, either. That title belongs to Jordy Nelson (14.3 yards per catch). So what is Jones' role for the 2012 NFC North champions?

For lack of a better term, James Jones is the Packers' closer.

Jones' league-leading 12 touchdown receptions (among receivers) includes 10 on plays that originated within the red zone. The scores have been crucial drive finishers for a team whose big-play capacity has dropped notably this season.

"He just catches touchdowns," Packers coach Mike McCarthy said after Jones caught three of them in the Packers' 21-13 victory Sunday over the Chicago Bears. "That's a nice job responsibility to have. It's just the way it falls sometimes."

Added quarterback Aaron Rodgers: "He's just been making plays ... and getting a lot of opportunities."

Indeed, as the first chart shows, Jones has by far been the Packers' most-targeted receiver on red zone passes. The second chart shows that no NFL player has caught more passes in the end zone, a sub-category that generally encompasses throws from a short distance.

That's quite a transition for a player once viewed as a raw and mistake-prone big-play threat, one who re-signed with the team as a free agent in 2011 only to find himself buried as the No. 4 receiver on the depth chart. But injuries to Greg Jennings (eight missed games) and Nelson (three and counting), along with the inconsistency of tight end Jermichael Finley, left Jones as the team's most reliable target when approaching the end zone.

At 6-foot-1, he isn't the classic big receiver who can outmuscle or outjump defenders in the end zone. But Jones has sharpened his route running and ball skills considerably over the past few years, and Rodgers was marveling Sunday about all three of his touchdowns.

The scores demonstrated a cross section of receiving skills. One was a fade route down the right sideline on which Jones got a step on cornerback Kelvin Hayden on his release. In veteran fashion, he held Hayden at bay with his left hand as he hauled in Rodgers' 29-yard pass.

On the second, Jones corralled a dart from Rodgers at the 2-yard line and -- after bobbling the ball for a moment -- ran over Bears cornerback D.J. Moore to get into the end zone. The bobble was a reminder that Jones dropped 20 passes over his previous three seasons, according to Pro Football Focus (PFF). This season, however, Jones has lowered that figure to three drops on 76 targets, according to PFF.

The Bears moved their top cornerback to defend Jones on the next red zone series, midway through the third quarter, but Jones still caught a back-shoulder pass against Charles Tillman for a 6-yard touchdown.

"Give him a ton of credit," Rodgers said. "Those are big-time plays and he's a go-to guy."

Someone had to be, after all, when it became clear early in the season that opponents would keep their safeties deep against the Packers and force them to drive the length of the field -- as opposed to playing closer to the line of scrimmage and giving them opportunities to score on long throws. Last season, the Packers connected on 20 passing touchdowns outside of the red zone. Of that total, 16 were from at least 30 yards out and 11 went for 40 or more yards.

Those big plays have dropped off by roughly 40 percent this season, but Jones has been the biggest reason why the Packers have scored enough touchdowns to win 10 games.

Afterward, Jones called Sunday's victory "a team win." It's only fair to point out that without Rodgers' pinpoint accuracy, Jones might have been shut out of the end zone. But every team needs a closer, and there is no doubt who the Packers' is.

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