AJ Dillon reminds Packers why he's essential to their offense during game-winning overtime drive

Ryan Wood
Packers News
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GREEN BAY – The right-wrist inscription is reserved for his wife’s name. Gabrielle Toonen is the first thing AJ Dillon sees when he needs to dig deep.

On the left, the Green Bay Packers running back scribbles inspiration.

It can be any little reminder he needs to carry into his next game. Dillon often hears a phrase during the week, sometimes game day morning, and jots it on his arm. On Sunday morning, he was watching the Minnesota Vikings beat the New Orleans Saints in London, where the Packers will travel this week.

An analyst said five words that stuck with him: win where your feet are.

Dillon grabbed a Sharpie and wrote the expression on his left wrist. “If you see the pictures,” Dillon said, “it’ll be there.” He might have had an idea how important that mindset would become in the Packers’ 27-24 win against the New England Patriots at Lambeau Field.

Through the season’s first three games, Dillon watched close friend and fellow tailback Aaron Jones assert himself as one of the NFL’s dominant playmakers. It’s Jones who now has a pair of 100-yard games at the season’s quarter pole, including 110 on 16 carries Sunday. Dillon couldn’t become complacent as he slipped into the backdrop. His sharpness is key to the Packers having perhaps the NFL’s best running back tandem, the foundation of an offense sputtering in the passing game.

Green Bay Packers running back AJ Dillon runs over New England Patriots safety Kyle Dugger.

Whenever Dillon’s feet are on the field, he needs to win.

“It’s all about just staying in the moment,” Dillon said. “Each play at a time, I kept saying that in my head. It doesn’t matter what the situation is. Just do this play. Come back. Do the next play. Repetition.”

Matt LaFleur went with powerful AJ Dillon to close out game

It took more than four quarters Sunday for the moment to find Dillon. After Jones wore down the Patriots, forcing them to chase him all over the field, coach Matt LaFleur had enough with stretching the defense sideways. He wanted to pound the football downhill.

From the 10-yard line, Jones opened what became the game-winning drive with a 3-yard carry on the first play. He didn’t touch the football again. Instead, Dillon rumbled for six carries on the final drive. They gained just 24 yards, modest production.

It was exactly what the Packers offense needed, avoiding negative plays as they methodically moved the chains until lining up Mason Crosby’s game-winning field goal from 31 yards.

“We started running more downhill runs,” LaFleur said. “I thought the push was pretty good. I think earlier in the game, we were sticking with Aaron Jones. We ran a lot more outside zone, but either one of those guys, I have a lot of trust in them. I just felt AJ was able to move the pile a little bit.”

Dillon’s production is easy to overlook as Jones pieces together his highlight reel in this early season. Dillon finished with 73 yards on 17 carries Sunday, a healthy 4.3-yard average. It paled to Jones’ 6.9 yards per carry.

Only one of Dillon’s rushes reached 10 yards. Jones has a 20-yard carry in three of the Packers’ first four games. Dillon's short runs serve a purpose. With the Patriots defense gassed, they were helpless to dig in their heels against Dillon. He carried the football each of the Packers’ final four plays, gaining 4, 3, 7 and 1 yards.

“He’s not a guy you want to see for 60 minutes,” left tackle David Bakhtiari said, “especially the latter half of 60 minutes. And if you’re going to add in 70 minutes, the last 10. There’s humans underneath those helmets. We’re all kind of tired going through it. I don’t know how many plays we ended up getting, but that’s a big man you’re going to have to stop every single time.

“So getting those extra yards, he’s turning 2 and 3 yards into 4 and 6 and popping a few. Those are character-building runs as well.”

Bond between AJ Dillon and Aaron Jones goes beyond sharing position

Dillon’s mantra Sunday wasn’t only meant for when he was on the field. Nothing has been more important for that Packers offense this season than the selflessness shared between Jones and Dillon. There is only one football, and with two tailbacks worthy of carrying a workhorse load, competition for touches could breed division.

That’s never happened since Dillon was drafted in the second round in 2020, a potential replacement for Jones as the Pro Bowler entered free agency. Even after Jones got his payday last year, their ability to coexist in the same offense hasn’t wavered. Dillon found a rhythm on Sunday’s final drive, running straight ahead, pushing the pile as he does.

At his locker after, Dillon recalled seeing Jones cheer for him on the sideline at one point late in overtime.

There aren’t many teams in the NFL that could sideline a running back in the midst of a 100-yard game in overtime because a better option is on the sideline. Not many star tailbacks would be so willing to step aside.

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“I think AJ is going to be a good closer regardless," Jones said. "Anytime in the fourth quarter, guys get gassed, guys get tired. AJ might weigh anything from 245 to 260. To see that running at them, and as hard as he runs, it’s not a good recipe for them. And he doesn’t die easy. He keeps his feet moving, which helps him. That’s one thing we pride ourselves on, not letting the first person bring us down and creating that YAC (yards after contact).

“You could see AJ start getting that rhythm, and it was like, ‘Hey, leave him in there. This is working.’ I’d love to be in there, but at the same time, we’ve got something that’s working. Why stop it?”

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