Packers' patience pays off as rookie AJ Dillon takes it to the Titans' defense
GREEN BAY – The first defender smacked into AJ Dillon at the 5-yard line. Matt Dickerson, the Tennessee Titans defensive end, paid for the mistake. Dickerson ricocheted a few yards backward. He was weightless, in flight. Like a matador who had just collided with the bull.
As Dillon continued his plunge toward the goal line late in the Packers’ 40-14 win Sunday night, the Titans' defense converged. Safety Kevin Byard wrapped both arms around Dillon’s waist at the 2-yard line, but slid down his legs. Defensive back Amani Hooker sandwiched Dillon at the 1. Dickerson stayed underneath Dillon, a 300-pound speed bump.
This was Giannis Antetokounmpo posterizing two, three defenders at the rim. When Dillon took the handoff from Aaron Rodgers at the 11-yard line, 6 yards behind the line of scrimmage, he had no business reaching the end zone. To get there, he had to navigate a minefield of Titans defenders.
The 250-pound tailback just ran through them like they weren’t even there.
“Will power, determination, whatever it is,” Dillon said. “I don’t want to be too dramatic, but we’re on the goal line, we’re in the gold zone, and I saw a crease.
“At that point, it’s going to take something to stop me. I just wanted to go over there and get another tug.”
You’ve been wondering what Dillon might look like carrying the football since the moment you saw his measurables on the night the Packers drafted him. He’s how big? He’s how fast? They don’t make many running backs built like a bus with 4.53 speed.
Finally, you saw Sunday night what enticed the Packers to use a second-round pick at a position that already had Aaron Jones, Jamaal Williams. The vision general manager Brian Gutekunst had to add strength to a strength. Yes, Dillon’s ceiling really is that high. On Sunday night, in the first extended playing time in his career, Dillon showed what irresistible potential looks like.
Dillon had a game-high 124 rushing yards on 21 carries, including two touchdowns. One score was power, Dillon running over the Titans' defense like The Incredible Hulk runs through a wall. The other was stunning speed.
On a fourth-and-inches in the third quarter, Dillon fooled the Titans' defense. They took confused angles, convinced a running back this big couldn’t possibly run that fast. Except, Dillon does. He stepped out of cornerback Adoree’ Jackson’s diving tackle at the line of scrimmage, barely touched. Safety Kenny Vaccaro came flying from across the field, but by the time he lunged to wrap his arms around Dillon, he was grasping air.
Dillon had already run past him, nothing between him and a 30-yard touchdown.
“I feel like I kind of sneak up on people,” Dillon said, “that I’ve got a little bit of speed, being as big as I am. So you always harp on – all running backs, pretty much – make the first guy miss. Don’t go down on first contact. So when I made the first guy miss, and I saw me one-on-one against the safety, all I was thinking was, ‘Go score.’ And it ended up in my favor.”
The whole night ended in Dillon’s favor. It was not lost on the rookie that his first, full NFL game came against the standard for big, powerful NFL tailbacks. Across the field, Derrick Henry stood on the other sideline. For years, Dillon has been compared to Henry. There are so few ball carriers with their size. He has watched film of Henry, trying to emulate him.
On Sunday, Dillon outrushed Henry on the same field.
Because of the Packers’ more-than-admirable bottling of Henry, the Titans star finished with 98 yards on 23 carries. He did not reach the end zone.
“It was a surprise,” quarterback Aaron Rodgers said. “Not that we didn’t think he could do this, but we just hadn’t seen it. I remember I liked his attitude, I liked you started seeing his swag come out, the confidence. It’s fun to see for a back, and he was bringing it. he was finishing runs the way that he really hasn’t up until this point.”
It was also a surprise because, just a few short weeks ago, it was unclear whether Dillon would play again this season. A day after he rushed five times for 21 yards against the Minnesota Vikings in November, Dillon learned he tested positive for COVID-19.
He would not return to the field until last week, sidelined six games with a tough case to shake. For weeks, Dillon wasn’t allowed inside team facilities. Rodgers said he was unsure he’d see the rookie again this season until he randomly encountered him in a Lambeau Field hallway. Even then, it took a couple more weeks working with head athletic trainer Bryan Engel and strength and conditioning coordinator Chris Gizzi to get his strength back.
“There are so many unknowns with COVID,” coach Matt LaFleur said. “It was a little bit amazing how long it took, but it affects everybody a little bit differently. We’re just thankful, first of all that he’s healthy and was able to fight through it. I know there were some scary moments, definitely, for him in terms of just battling through that.”
Said Dillon: “I’ll be the poster boy for COVID is the real deal.”
Dillon returned last week against the Carolina Panthers, but it was abbreviated. He flashed his burst on an 18-yard run, but it was his only carry. With Williams inactive Sunday because of a quadriceps injury, the Packers were determined to use Dillon more.
He did not have an ideal start. Dillon’s first carry gained 1 yard. His second carry gained 1 yard. But the Packers kept giving it to him.
“I just stuck with it,” Dillon said, “and eventually a couple popped for me.”
The runs finally started getting longer. And heavier. Downhill. Dillon took it to the Titans defense, the way a big, bruising Packers running back should in the snow.
It was a long road for Dillon to reach his breakout. He had to wait behind maybe the NFL’s deepest backfield. He navigated a pandemic. Teammates wondered when he’d come back. Fans wondered if they’d ever see the second-round pick shine.
On Sunday, all that patience was worth it.
“AJ did exactly what I’ve been waiting for this whole time,” receiver Davante Adams said. “Obviously I’ve seen what he can do in practice, but going out and – he’s had a couple flashes – but to have a solid game like that, to outrush Derrick Henry when he didn’t even start, I mean, just a great performance.
“AJ is a monster. So I think you’re going to see a lot more of that going forward.”