GREEN BAY – Packers Head Coach Matt LaFleur told reporters on Tuesday evening he’s “cautiously optimistic” about running back Aaron Jones‘ availability this Thursday against Detroit.
That said, Green Bay will take the week to assess the progress Jones and receiver Christian Watson are making from the hamstring injuries that sidelined the Packers’ top two playmakers the past couple weeks.
“I don’t want to sacrifice one game for a longer period of time. I don’t think anybody does,” said LaFleur on Tuesday. “Certainly, we all want him out there. We know how valuable (Jones) is to our football team in so many aspects, whether he’s got the ball or not. But we want to make sure he’s able to protect himself and not going to be at further risk for injury.”
The Packers conducted a walkthrough in lieu of practice on Tuesday, with both Watson and Jones estimated as limited participants.
After practice, Watson was optimistic this could be the week he makes his 2023 debut. While LaFleur loves his receiver’s mindset, Green Bay’s head coach also cautioned Watson still must be medically cleared to play.
“He’s got to go through the process, I would say, before anything’s for certain,” LaFleur said. “We’d love to have him out there. If he gets cleared, he’ll be able to go.”
Watson was a big-play machine for the Packers in 2022. The 6-foor-4, 208-pound receiver caught 41 passes for 611 yards and seven touchdowns in 14 games (11 starts) as a rookie.
He’d been looking to build upon that solid start until injuring his hamstring in practice prior to Week 1. Watson returned to practice on Sept. 15 and has been mostly limited since then.
“I’m just trying to do as much as I can every day,” Watson said. “If as much as I can is going out there and doing the indy drills for a couple minutes and then running off to the side, that’s what I’m going to do. I didn’t really have any setbacks throughout the process.”
Watson’s injury was the first of several Green Bay has dealt with since the start of the regular season. In addition to Jones, the Packers were without left tackle David Bakhtiari and left guard Elgton Jenkins against New Orleans due to knee injuries.
Right tackle Zach Tom also injured his knee near the end of the Saints game but was upgraded to limited Tuesday after being estimated as a non-participant Monday.
Meanwhile, the Packers anxiously await Jones’ return. The Pro Bowl running back produced 127 yards and two touchdowns on 11 touches against Chicago in Week 1 but tweaked his hamstring on the second of those two scores. He did a pregame workout before Sunday’s game against the Saints but was inactive.
“He’s a huge playmaker,” said quarterback Jordan Love of Jones. “You saw Week 1, just getting him the ball ends up in a good play most of the time, so it’s gonna be huge just for everybody, just help out. He’s gonna be a big playmaker for us and probably just make the offense be a little more explosive when he’s out there.”
Despite the absence of Jones and Watson, Love has been off to a promising start with Green Bay’s young skill-position players and the first-year starter hasn’t been shy about airing the ball out.
Through three starts, Love currently is tied for fifth in the NFL with seven completions of 25 or more yards. He’s also been one of the league’s most aggressive downfield passers, according to NFL Next Gen Stats.
He leads the league in aggressive percentage (29.2%), which refers to passing attempts with a defender within 1 yard of the receiver, and in average intended air yards (10.4), the average yards a passer throws on all attempts.
Getting Watson back could help turn those deep balls into big gains. Last season, Watson ranked in the top 10 in both yards after catch per reception (6.8) and average targeted yards (14.1).
The 24-year-old receiver was also tied for No. 1 among NFL rookies with three 100-yard receiving games. One of those came during Love’s relief appearance against Philadelphia, where the two connected on a 63-yard touchdown pass in the fourth quarter.
“I think we’ve seen flashes of it last year,” said Watson of his playmaking ability. “My goal for this year is to take another step forward and level up a little bit. I think we’ll see a lot more of what I was doing last year this year, and I’m excited for it.”
Regardless of the availability of Jones and Watson, the Packers face a stiff test against the Lions, who stifled Atlanta’s offense during a 20-6 win over the Falcons at Ford Field on Sunday.
“I think that whole defense, you can see the physicality, you can see the speed, the relentless pursuit on tape,” LaFleur said. “I think they’re well-coached and they’ve got talented players, so it presents a lot of challenges for us as an offense.”
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