AJ Dillon didn't have eye-popping stats vs. the Rams, but the running back showed his immense value to the Packers with a strong performance
GREEN BAY – He runs like an armored tank, plowing over anything in his path, so it is easy to forget AJ Dillon is in fact mortal. There is flesh underneath those shoulder pads, though his quadriceps are built like tree trunks, large enough that each has its own nickname.
Quadzilla. The Quadfather. Take your pick.
Watch him truck into a pile of full-grown men, as he did more than once during the Green Bay Packers’ 36-28 win Sunday against the Los Angeles Rams, and it’s remarkable how that pile is almost always pushed backward. He is one man swarmed by three, four, sometimes five defenders, but built strong enough, indestructible enough, to fall forward.
It has reached the point that if the Packers' offense is in a short-yardage situation, and No. 28 is lined up in the backfield, everybody in the stadium knows who’s getting the ball.
And it does not matter. Dillon gets the first down anyway.
Dillon said it’s the “demeanor” he plays with. Call it what you want. Stubbornness. Resolve. General badassery. Dillon will not be tackled.
“For me,” Dillon said, “just kind of getting into that mindset where, yeah, I might’ve had a 1-yard gain, but you’re not tackling me. I feel like other people kind of feed off that.”
AJ Dillon was key to keeping drives moving Sunday vs. the Rams
Dillon’s box score did not blow anyone away Sunday afternoon against a Rams defense that entered ranked 10th against the run. He finished with only 69 yards on his 20 carries, a pedestrian 3.5-yard average. But those 20 carries, along with five catches for 21 yards, were a lunch-pail effort. Dillon was the foundation of the Packers' offense Sunday, a battering ram that continually extended scoring drives and kept the Rams defense honest.
Take the third quarter’s opening drive. With a 20-17 halftime lead, the Packers got the first possession in the second half and marched 75 yards in 13 plays. Dillon touched the football on eight snaps, including a 5-yard touchdown to open a 27-17 lead.
BOX SCORE:Packers 36, Rams 28
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The Packers’ lead didn’t cut to single digits until the Rams kicked a meaningless field goal with 18 seconds left.
“Numbers don’t always tell it all,” Dillon said. “I can’t tell you how many times today we got first downs, second and one or third and whatever, but those keep the drive moving or staying ahead of the chains. Obviously, four-minute drives, everybody knows we’re going to run the ball, but putting us in position to run the ball. Anybody who knows or is watching the football game, you know how big and how key those are.
“As a running back, it’s great to go out there and keep those chains moving. It’s great to get the first down. That means more to me than going and running a 20-yard, down-the-sideline whatever.”
Dillon shows his strength on his touchdown catch
Dillon’s touchdown catch, his second this season, was perhaps the best example of his implausible strength.
Aaron Rodgers’ pass was thrown a touch behind him, on Dillon’s back hip. When Dillon caught it at the 5-yard line, he had Rams linebacker Troy Reeder firmly between him and the end zone. Most tailbacks might have lost that battle short of the goal line. Not Dillon.
The 250-pound bruiser ran through Reeder’s arm tackle like he wasn’t even there, shaking the 6-3, 245-pound linebacker like a doll on his way to the end zone.
“Sometimes,” Dillon said, “you’ve got to have that north and south running mentality, and sometimes it happens in the pass game. It’s something we preach all the time — catching the ball and getting vertical, getting those yards. Aaron gave me a good ball, turned up, and the rest is history.”
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Dillon’s ascension this season justified general manager Brian Gutekunst’s decision to draft him in the second round last year. Now the question is just how much the decision to take a running back when that position looked anything but a need will pay off for the Packers.
Aaron Jones returned from an MCL sprain Sunday, and though he started, it was Dillon’s game. Jones had three carries in the Packers' first four snaps. Then he carried the football only six times the rest of the way, finishing with 23 yards.
There is no question Jones is a star. “Obviously,” Rodgers said, “we’re a better team when (number) 33 is out there.” Jones is one of the NFL’s premier home run threats, capable of breaking off a highlight touchdown from anywhere on the field.
Dillon is built like the prototypical workhorse back, the kind who can handle north of 20 carries each week. Dillon had 845 carries in 35 games scattered over three seasons at Boston College, a stunning average of 24 carries per game. Then he got a rookie season that was effectively a redshirt year, resting his body. Now Dillon is ready to go, no limits.
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Asked if he even felt all those hits 25 touches Sunday brought, if he was even sore, Dillon did not hesitate.
“Not really,” he said. “Some games more sore than others. I’ll probably feel it a little bit more tomorrow. I do think playing at BC, and the career that I had there, really prepared me for times like this. I’m used to getting hit, used to running between the tackles, and we’ve got a great training staff here. I’m going in there and get the bumps and bruises catered to, but they do a really good job of helping us recover and having all the tools for that.
“I feel good and excited. Not ready to play another game right now, but definitely feel good.”
Packers' bye will allow Aaron Jones to get healthier for the stretch run
The Packers will get a chance to rest this week as they go on their late-season bye. It will give Jones an opportunity to further recover, perhaps returning in two weeks against the Chicago Bears at something resembling full health.
Coach Matt LaFleur said Jones wasn’t cleared until Sunday to play. Even still, the team wanted to be cautious.
“I wouldn’t say a pitch count,” LaFleur said, “but we wanted to be smart with him. He’s a big-time piece to everything we want to try to get done here.”
For the Packers to be their best, they need Jones. The same can now be said about Dillon. LaFleur said the two are effectively even on his depth chart. “It’s 1A, 1B,” he said. On Sunday, Dillon was the Packers’ primary tailback in part to limit Jones’ workload in his return from the MCL injury.
The time might come where, depending on the match-up, Dillon could warrant being the featured tailback even with Jones healthy.
“I think both of those guys,” LaFleur said, “are just premier backs in this league.”
Dillon showed Sunday against one of the NFL’s best defensive fronts just how important a constant threat of the power run game can be to the Packers' offense as the weather gets cold, and the playoff chase heat up.