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Two healthy Packers' RBs, one clear-cut choice in Jamaal Williams

GREEN BAY, Wis. -- Maybe this should have been obvious back in April, when Jamaal Williams was the first of the three running backs drafted by the Packers.

Or in August, when Williams was the only one who put up a legitimate challenge in training camp to veteran Ty Montgomery for the starting job.

If it wasn’t clear then, it is now: Williams is the Packers’ workhorse running back -- even with fellow rookie Aaron Jones back from his knee injury.

And with quarterback Aaron Rodgers' return from his broken collarbone set for Sunday at the Carolina Panthers, there couldn’t be a better time for the Packers to have found their man in the backfield.

“I feel we’ve always been dangerous, but it’s great to have [No.] 12 back there, putting things together,” Williams, a fourth-round pick, said this week. “Now, people have to respect us even more pass game-wise too. I think it’ll help out the run game a little bit more. People won’t be putting eight or nine in the box. It’ll be good.”

It will be different for Williams, whose playing time with Rodgers was minimal. He carried only 10 times in the first six games before Rodgers broke his right clavicle on Oct. 15 at the Minnesota Vikings. At that point, Williams had fallen from No. 2 on the depth chart to No. 3, behind Montgomery and Jones, a fifth-round pick.

It wasn’t until more than a month later when Williams finally got his shot, after Montgomery reinjured his broken ribs and Jones sprained his knee on Nov. 12 at the Chicago Bears. From the midway point of that game on, it has been mostly Williams’ show.

Dating to Week 9, Williams has 96 carries -- which ranks sixth among all running backs during that stretch -- and four touchdowns. No running back has more than five scores during that time frame. He also ranks sixth in total yards from scrimmage (577) among RBs over the past six weeks.

“He showed some good signs of things during the preseason,” said Packers running backs coach Ben Sirmans. “You’ve heard me make the comment before: I think he was a little bit too conservative at the beginning of the season. Now, he’s relaxed. Once you’ve got a great feel for the pro game, you start playing the way he’s capable of playing. He’s very trustworthy. He’s very trustworthy in protections. He’s a good receiver out of the backfield. He gets the tough yardage. He’s a complete, every-down back, so you feel pretty good about that.”

So how did Williams get to this point after his idle early season?

It could have been due in part to Sirmans’ decision to watch some of Williams’ college film from BYU. The footage illustrated how Williams piled up a school-record 3,901 yards and 16 100-plus-yard rushing games along the way.

“I went back and looked at it again and told him what I saw [and said], ‘Man, you just need to get out there and just play football. Don’t worry about making mistakes. Just do what you love. That’s how your approach to the game has to be,” Sirmans said. “After he basically lost his positioning when Aaron Jones came up against Dallas, he became the No. 3 guy, but he never wavered. Maybe that’s the button that needed to be pushed.”

If there was any question about whether Williams would hang on to the No. 1 job, it was answered last Sunday at the Cleveland Browns. With Jones no longer on the injury report and fresh off his game-winning touchdown run in overtime to beat the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Packers coach Mike McCarthy could have gone back to a 50-50 split against the Browns. After all, Williams and Jones each had previously surpassed 100 yards rushing in games this season -- a rare feat among rookie running back teammates.

Instead, Williams played 50 snaps and Jones just eight in Cleveland. Williams, coming off his first career 100-yard game against Tampa Bay, rushed 15 times for 49 yards versus the Browns, but he also caught seven passes for 69 yards and a touchdown. Jones carried just four times for minus-2 yards.

“We didn't have a ton of balance the first five games, and now you've seen that both those guys have gone over 100 yards in a game, which has been great,” Rodgers said. “Jamaal has his style, a very physical back, but he's got good vision. And Jones has really shown he's more of a slasher. But they've both done a really good job for us and gave us that balance. What it does, especially [as] I saw it last time when I was out, as well, that line gained a lot of confidence in the run game, because we were more balanced than when I was out there. We've still got to keep doing those things, even when I'm back this week.”