It’s been several days now since Packer rookie A.J. Dillon helped turn what was supposed to be a toss-up game into a rout. I’ve tried to cool my ardor for this huge running back, to get things back into perspective, to stop fantasizing over what Dillon’s future might hold, but I can’t help it: I think Dillon is going to be not just Green Bay’s, but the NFL’s, next big thing.
Who cares what I think, you say? Fair enough, so I’ll give you some reasons for my belief, and you can decide for yourself.
Starting with Sunday’s game, and going backward, this was the most important game of the year for Green Bay. The best players tend to come up the biggest in such situations. On Sunday, A.J. came up huge – as did the other skills players we’d expect to: Rodgers, Jones, Adams. On almost every carry, the big man got an extra two or three yards via sheer power. He was mistake-free all game long: no penalties, no fumbles, no drops, no missed assignments, etc.
With Jamaal Williams out, the Titans had to expect that A.J. would be prominently featured in Green Bay’s offense. Presumably they had some kind of plan in place should Dillon prove to be a challenge. Despite the prior notice, the Titans never found a way to keep him contained. Though Tennessee has not possessed a strong defense this season, they’ve not been a pushover either. Prior to Sunday they were right in the middle of the league in rushing yardage allowed. After Dillon and crew ran roughshod over them, they’ve now surrendered an average of 122.5 yards on the ground per game. The 237 yards gained (ignoring kneel downs) by the Packers dropped the Titans into 19th place in rushing defense. It was the worst showing against the run on the season for the Titans – their previous two worst games had been against the Vikes (226) and Colts (133).
Next, consider the position Dillon was in. He’d only had 24 carries in his NFL career, in which he gained a total of 115 yards (4.8 average). He had but one carry since November 1. He also had just come off of six weeks of inactivity while recovering from a nasty case of the coronavirus. Though he obviously kept himself in shape, he had little on-field practice going into Sunday’s game.
Rookie running backs simply aren’t supposed to have the kind of stats A.J. ran up against the Titans. Packers Wire came up with this info: he’s the first Green Bay rookie to rush for at least 120 yards and score at least two rushing touchdowns in a game in team history – a history that goes back 100+ years.
Two-time Pro Bowler Derrick Henry didn’t exceed a 124-yard game until going for 131 yards on the 6th outing of his second year, and then didn’t do so again until the 13th game of his third year.
Topping things off, A.J. is a man-child. Though only 22 years old, Dillon was a well-developed power runner while still a teenager. As a teenage freshman in 2017, Dillon amassed 1,589 rushing yards; in ten games as a sophomore, he gained 1,108 yards in 227 carries; he then capped off his career at Boston College by gaining 1,685 yards in 318 carries in 2019. He averaged 5.2 yards per carry as a collegian.
Check out his 2018 and 2019 highlight films here and here. You’ll see that he already had the body, the strength, the speed, and the aggression by the time he turned 20.
By the time Dillon left college and was drafted by GM Gutekunst, he was already a proven workhorse and power rusher. The perceived wisdom is that a lot of college stars encounter difficulties when they take on the superior competition in the NFL. When I compare his college highlight reels with his game film against the Titans, I see a player who is even a more dominant, talented, and powerful force in the pros than he was in college – and he’s still getting better.
Green Bay was already an offensive powerhouse prior to last Sunday. Entering the final week of the regular season, the Packers are back on top in scoring, averaging 31.6 points per game. They also rank third overall in yards gained.
The increased usage of A.J. Dillon should give the Packers an added boost in several ways. Whenever a team faces a massive, powerful, and talented running back, that team almost has to design its defense around slowing such a force down.
Here’s how “Dean” previously put it: “It would be fun to see Jones and Dillon in the backfield together and see how the defense responds. If the defense goes with big bodies then split Jones out and pass it. If they go small, pound the ball on the ground.”
“Mick” also well described the added options this big back offers: “Another key to Dillons’ value; 2nd half of games and watching the opposing defenses try to stop a runaway train! I like it! I like it a lot! Then counter it with the aggresive A. Jones, and versatile Williams. It’s only been one game as far as Dillon goes but, what a different dimension he brings to this already potent offense.”
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The Green Bay coach all of a sudden has some critical choices to make. He’s got up to four games left on the season, and from here on out he’ll be going against teams with more wins than losses every time.
The coach might be reluctant to tinker with an outfit that leads the league in points scored. On the other hand, it wasn’t long ago that even most true-blue Packers fans didn’t think Green Bay had much of a chance to reach the Super Bowl. This likely has changed considerably, as the team is on the cusp of again “running the table” – ending the regular season with six wins in a row.
In my opinion, Green Bay’s Super Bowl prospects improved abruptly when A.J. Dillon came out of obscurity to dominate the Titan’s defense. At any rate, devising ways to make a very good offense even better is not the worst problem a coach or offensive coordinator could have.
On Sunday, LaFleur didn’t seem reluctant at all to not only insert Dillon into the lineup, but to feature him. With Jamaal Williams out for the game, it’s likely that LaFleur planned to use Dillon extensively even if Aaron Jones had not suffered a minor injury.
If anyone knows how a massive power back can influence a game, it’s Matt LaFleur. Though it seems longer, just two years ago LaFleur was the Titans’ offensive coordinator and play caller. Derrick Henry’s number got called 215 times, and Henry had his first 1,000-yard rushing season. In 2019, his workload increased to 303 carries and 1,540 yards.
This year he’s at 340 carries and 1,777 yards – he’s projected to finish with around 1,900 yards after the Titans’ finale regular season game, against the Texans. The NFL’s most recent 2,000-yard rusher was Adrian Peterson in 2012.
Derrick Henry is currently the epitome of an NFL power back. Since around 2,000, I’d only rate two other players as great power runners. Eddie Lacy was one, though his career was compromised by an eating problem.
The other was Marshawn Lynch. Lynch had a controversial 12-year career – he even had a few carries for the Seahawks as recently as 2019. But he’s the modern standard I use as a power runner – and that’s even though he weighed only 215 pounds. It’s all about the thighs, and A.J. has Lynch- and Lacy-sized thighs.
I’m not anointing A.J. Dillon as the next great NFL power rusher, but I’m opining that he’s shone the “potential” for joining these ranks. That potential should render Packers fans giddy with excitement and high hopes for the team’s future.