GREEN BAY, Wis. — When it’s 10 degrees, everything is tougher. Throwing the ball is difficult. Catching it is difficult. Hitting him is hard.
And tackling a 247-pound man is tough, too.
AJ Dillon was drafted by the Green Bay Packers in the second round last year because he is a full back. He was unstoppable as a draft horse racer at Boston College, and his pass-catching ability is exactly what the team was projecting.
Now it’s January. The Packers are two Super Bowl wins away. They have the coveted home-court advantage for Saturday’s NFC Divisional Playoff game against the San Francisco 49ers. Plays like this are another reason the Packers drafted Dillon. On what’s going to be a chilly night, Dillon could help carry the Packers to a third straight trip to the NFC Championship Game.
Dillon was a non-factor for the Week 3 game against the 49ers. In fact, he hasn’t been a factor to start the season with just 15 runs in the first three games. But, partly because Aaron Jones was limited by a knee injury, Dillon became the main ball carrier down the straight. From Week 4 through Week 18, Dillon ranked 12th with 748 rushing yards.
“He’s gotten better all year,” 49ers defensive coordinator DeMeco Ryans said Wednesday. “I can see his ranges increasing and you see him running the ball a lot better. What challenge does it present? I don’t think it’s a huge challenge. We just have to play defense like we play defense. And it’s just that everyone swarms towards the ball. Everyone is just where they are supposed to be and trying to play as physically as possible. That’s how you treat him. It won’t be a guy who will take him down. You see on film many times, a guy coming in, he does a good job knocking down defenders, just dragging guys. So it will take more than one person to tackle AJ because he is such a big, strong and physical runner.
Of 45 guards with at least 100 carries during that span, he tied for 14th with 3.19 yards after contact per carry, according to Pro Football Focus. He has rarely been handsome. Most of the time, Dillon has been a sledgehammer, turning a run that was blocked for 2 yards into a 5 gain or plowing forward for 2 yards to power the NFL’s top-ranked short-range offense.
“He’s just a different kind of back,” quarterback Aaron Rodgers said earlier this season. “It’s a cold-weather Green Bay back that we’ve had over the years. … And, man, he’s been really snappy. I’ve been really impressed with that. As a leader and someone who likes to use my brain to win games, when someone can match that preparation like he did, it gives me a lot of confidence, I’m really proud of that kind of leap he made last year. Running the ball is a bowling ball.He has a lot of weight behind the ball.
Although he hasn’t rushed for more than 11 yards since Week 9, Dillon showed his worth in the prime-time spotlight in a few late-season home games. Against the Rams in Week 12, Dillon carried 20 times for just 69 yards. According to PFF, 61 of them came after contact. Against the Vikings in Week 17, Dillon carried 14 times for 63 yards. According to PFF, 41 of them came after contact.
“Being from BC, I can get out here in cold weather,” Dillon said before the game against Minnesota. “We have a lot of East Coast and Midwest guys on the team. We have a lot of guys who are used to playing in this environment and these conditions. I feel like there’s a kind of – not an advantage – but a familiarity. It’s funny, I was talking to Jonesy today in training, I just say ‘This is what you expect’. Whatever you do, don’t go ahead and take your cold hands and put them in something warm and try to run back. It’s going to be much worse for you. It’s funny, I have a bunch of jokes for hot states guys.
Matt LaFleur’s offense – no different from Kyle Shanahan’s 49ers offense – is all about managing the football and setting up similar-looking passes. In play this season, Rodgers has completed 71.5% of his passes with 10 touchdowns and no interceptions with a passer rating of 118.3.
The Packers will have to lead the football on Saturday night. The 49ers’ passing rush has dominated the past two games, so Green Bay can’t afford to roll with a one-sided offense. It will be up to Dillon and Jones to grind down the tough yards, as they have done all season, and reward the Packers for their high investments in draft picks (Dillon) and money (Jones).
On a cold night, with so much at stake, Dillon must lower the arrow against a defense that is determined to stop him, finally, cold.
“We definitely need to tackle better,” Ryans said when asked about Week 3. “We dropped too much leaked footage. on him at 2 meters and a run that should be 2 meters, it ends up being 6 meters and we have to make sure that we have guys at a gain of 2 meters. It has to be a gain of 2 yards, so we can’t allow leaky yardage, yards after contact there. That was the problem in Game 1 and we just need to populate the football better. We need to have more guys around the ball because their two backs are really talented so we just have to swarm and tackle better.