AJ Dillon uses 'dad strength' to take over run game and help propel Packers to win
CHICAGO − AJ Dillion stood relaxed in front of his locker, the iconic green and gold sombrero belonging to his teammate Aaron Jones, sitting on the back of his head. In his hand rested a party size bag of Skittles that Jones had just handed him to munch on during his postgame interview. To the victors go the spoils.
Popping a Skittle at a time in his mouth, the third-year running back pondered why his production, which had taken a dive after Week 1, has ticked up significantly the past two weeks.
“I think it's just early set-in dad strength,” Dillon said. “It’s a real thing. I already had the bald strength, now the dad strength is setting in.”
Dillon and his wife announced this week they are expecting a baby, due next May. After Dillon scored on a 21-yard touchdown to kickstart the Packers' 18-0 fourth quarter, en route to a 28-19 win over the Chicago Bears, Dillon used the football to mime rocking a baby in celebration. It’s a moment he’s been waiting on for weeks.
“We were obviously holding off to make sure she got through the first trimester before we announced and everything,” Dillon said. “The only deal was if I scored three touchdowns in a game, I could do it early. So now that it's out there in the world, I was like, ‘finally I can do it.’ So that was fun.”
The play came courtesy of the Packers wearing down the Bears, Dillon said, chipping away in the run game.
“We kind of ran a play similar to that throughout the course of the game and a couple of times I got stopped for 1 (yard),” Dillon said. “Just kind of sticking with it. You know, every once in a while you’ll get those gassers, kind of wear them down. And felt that was kind of the mindset. Just run the ball.”
For as long as Dillon waited for an excuse to execute his “new dad” celebration, he and the Packers have waited nearly as long for his production to match his expectations. As the Green Bay offense sputtered at times, Dillon found himself a casualty. Jones became one of the few sparks the club had, understandably requiring more snaps.
But as the weather gets colder, Dillon apparently becomes stronger.
“He's been a good cold-weather runner for us going back to his rookie year against Tennessee,” quarterback Aaron Rodgers said. “He's a tough tackle. He doesn't go down easy. And he seems, you know, last couple weeks, he's had a guy on him at like the 5 and just can't get him down.”
On Sunday in Chicago, as rookie receiver Christian Watson helped stretch the field, Dillon took advantage of open space, averaging 5.2 yards per gain. He gained 93 yards and a touchdown on 18 carries.
That stat line could have inched even closer to the century mark if not for a suspect official's call in the second half. Down by six, the Packers were looking to take the lead on the opening drive. Facing a second-and-3 from their 27-yard line, Dillon dove forward, slipped, got back up seemingly untouched and proceeded past the first-down chains. The play was blown dead and, as such, coach Matt LaFleur was informed he couldn’t challenge the call.
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“Talking about like, hey, can we challenge this, and we couldn't,” LaFleur said. “I get it, man. The officials, they got a tough job. There's no doubt about it. But, you know, I didn't think he got touched. But the call was made, and you just got to live with it.”
Dillon told reporters in the locker room that he “slipped” but then got up and “I never got touched and kept running. So I think it should’ve been a first.”
While the first drive of the third quarter ended unceremoniously, the fourth quarter saw Dillon pick up 43 yards and the touchdown on six touches.
“He's a really solid football player,” Rodgers said. “I mean that with the most respect possible and most gratitude and credit to him for the way that he shows up.”
The Packers needed Dillon to show up in Chicago, as Jones exited the game multiple times, dealing with a shin injury. It’s something Jones said he’s been nurturing for a couple of weeks now. It was re-aggravated early in Sunday’s game, leading Jones to sit for some time. He entered the game again in the second half but took only two touches after halftime.
“I could have definitely played,” Jones said, “but I think it was more so them looking out for me and taking care of me. Not wanting me to re-injure it since I've already injured it.”
Added LaFleur, “Obviously, we have the two-back package with both AJ and Aaron and, you know, when one of those guys is down, that takes a significant chunk out of your offense.
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"So what I told (running backs coach) Ben (Sirmans) was, I said, ‘hey, let's roll with AJ unless we need that two-back package.’ So that's how we went. I know Aaron Jones could have gone back in the game, but he just − I thought it was smarter to allow AJ to go out there, a guy that we've got a ton of confidence in, and let Aaron kind of try to get healthy. If we need him in a critical situation or whatever or if we wanted to call one of those plays from that two-back package, that's when we'll put him in the game.”
Jones said the upcoming bye week should be enough time to heal the shin injury.
When Jones was in the game, picking up his 50 total yards on nine carries and five receptions, the Packers were able to keep the offense progressing with a zone-read pitch that has become their bread-and-butter with Jones. The beauty of it, explained Jones, is the ability to build a play within a play.
“You can also run the ball going across like on an outside zone or you can run inside zone from that same side,” Jones said. “So I feel like that’s like … multiple options, a little misdirection. But it’s setting them up pretty much because we’re always running the ball across, wide zone outside, from the gun, things like that.”
As Rodgers floats to one side with Jones, reading the defensive end until the last second, Jones knows if he gets the ball, he can take it one of two ways: continue toward the edge and hug the sideline, or let the play continue to flow that way, taking the defense with it, while using his speed and cutting ability to run the opposite way.
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The misdirection was crucial in stretching the Bears from sideline-to-sideline, so by the time Dillon took over, the middle of the field was his to work with.
“We always prepare in our room to be ready whenever our number's called,” Dillon said. “We all feel confident that we know what we need to do, when we need to do it and how to help the team. Nobody really thought about it, no pep talk, we all knew we had to do and everybody was ready.”
As Dillon wrapped up his postgame interviews and plopped the sombrero back in his teammates locker, Jones looked on smiling, unable to stop himself from bragging about his partner. This unit was always supposed to be a one-two punch, but on Sunday, the rush game was forced to become one-dimensional, this time through Dillon.
“When a dog’s being a dog, let the dog be the dog,” Jones said. “And I told him that, so I told him I'm proud of him as well. You know he stepped up, he's just getting better and better.”