Twenty-one carries. 124 yards. Two touchdowns. Many people thought Derrick Henry’s stat line would look something like this on Sunday night, not A.J. Dillon’s. After not having much of a role on offense for the first 15 weeks of the season, the Green Bay Packers rookie running back picked an enormous stage to have a breakout performance. Everything came together for Dillon in a snowy, statement-making win over the Tennessee Titans in Week 16.
Entering the game, Dillon had 24 carries for 114 yards, no touchdowns, and one catch for 16 yards. In all fairness, not much was expected of Dillon in Year 1. It was basically a redshirt year in which he could get comfortable with the offense and learn from Aaron Jones and Jamaal Williams. In limited reps, he was averaging 4.8 yards per carry, which isn’t terrible by any means. However, he still hadn’t quite found his footing within the offense.
That all changed this week when Jamaal Williams was ruled inactive with a quadricep injury, possibly providing a small opening for Dillon. However, even with Williams out, Jones was likely to continue warranting most of the touches.
Dillon has been on the field for less than 10 percent of offensive snaps in 2020 and was also placed on the reserve/COVID-19 list for a five-week span earlier in the year. After the game, Aaron Rodgers admitted he wasn’t sure Dillon would be back at all this season. Clearly, Dillon wasn’t going to let a big opportunity slip by if it presented itself.
On the opening drive that went for 60 yards and a touchdown, Dillon didn’t have a carry and wasn’t on the field for a single play. Jones appeared to be on his way to another solid performance, starting the game with three carries for 20 yards.
The second drive was designed for Dillon by head coach Matt LaFleur. It didn’t exactly start out great as his first two carries totaled just two yards. Dillon finally got things with a rush of six yards and another for nine yards. Those two carries may have never happened had the Titans not committed a crucial penalty on third down to extend the drive. If that penalty never occurred, Dillon may have had a very different night.
Later, an interception by safety Darnell Savage set up a short field situation for the Packers’ offense. However, on the first play, Rodgers threw a ball in the direction of Jones who was tackled and landed awkwardly. Jones exited the game and was replaced by Dillon.
On the very next play, Dillon rushed up the middle for a gain of 14 yards. While Green Bay punched in their third touchdown, Dillon became the featured back.
When the Packers drafted Dillon, the possibilities of him running through arm tackles in cold December football were some of the first images that came to mind. Against Tennessee, he did just that. During the third quarter, Dillon sprung through a hole, and with one man to beat, forced a missed tackle for a 30-yard touchdown run.
The long score certainly would have capped off a great night for Dillon, but he wasn’t quite done. He would later score his second career touchdown while carrying a pile of Titans players on his shoulders. In training camp, we saw pictures and heard folktales of Dillon’s strength, but Sunday night was the first time everyone got to witness it.
He showed that there could be a bright future in Green Bay. He also showed why the Packers were so high on him. In reaction to Dillon’s Day 2 selection, many pointed to LaFleur’s time with Henry from the season he spent in Tennessee. Comparing the two players’ physical stature and play style, it was clear the Packers hoped Dillon might be their own version of Henry. Sunday night provided some hope of it actually coming true.
Dillon had the better game between the two as Henry finished the game with 23 carries for 98 yards and no touchdowns. Right now, there’s no telling what Dillon’s role will be once Jones and Williams are back to full health. For Green Bay, having three viable options at running back is a great problem to have.
“It is so exciting when you have three backs that you have so much confidence in,” LaFleur said. “All three of those guys, to me, are starters in this league.”
This performance could go down as Dillon’s most memorable from his rookie season, but even if that is the case, the Packers will be happy. At the very least, Dillon showed that this offense can still play at a high level with him as the primary running back.