AJ Dillon put himself on the NFL rushing map with a breakout performance against the Tennessee Titans in Week 16, but there was a time not long ago when the Green Bay Packers feared the second-round rookie wouldn’t play another snap of the 2020 season.
The Packers (12-3) had nothing but praise for Dillon on Sunday night after he marched for 124 rushing yards and the first two touchdowns of his career in the 40-14 home victory, stepping up to the plate with Aaron Jones and Jamaal Williams both battling injuries. He thrived in the snow, shaking tackles and bulldozing a few defensive linemen to outgain Derrick Henry (98) on fewer carries (23 to 21).
What’s more impressive is that Dillon was able to put on a show after a rough bout with COVID-19 earlier this season, one that kept him away from the team for more than five weeks and forced him to work his way back into football shape.
“We were unsure whether he was even going to come back this year I think,” Quarterback Aaron Rodgers told reporters in Sunday’s postgame. “I remember one day just walking from the locker room to the walkthrough and I saw AJ walking and I was like, ‘Hey, you’re back!’ Because it was fun seeing him back. And I feel like he worked his way (back) into shape for a couple of weeks, but he hasn’t had the opportunity to show us this.”
Follow the Heavy on Packers Facebook page for the latest breaking news, rumors and content!
Dillon’s COVID-19 Recovery Had ‘Scary Moments’
Dillon came into his rookie season with uncertain expectations after being selected in the second round of the 2020 NFL draft. While he was the sixth running back taken overall, the Packers were also returning a strong rushing duo that featured the 2019 touchdown leader. At the same time, Jones and Williams could both be gone by 2021 with each set to become a free agent in the upcoming offseason.
Initially, Dillon functioned as the occasional No. 3 back in the rotation with most of his carries coming in garbage time, but Packers head coach Matt LaFleur had expressed a desire midseason to find more ways to get him the ball. Then, Dillon tested positive for the coronavirus and was placed on the reserve list on Oct. 2, bringing his progress to a dead halt for more than a month.
“There are so many unknowns with COVID and so it was a little bit amazing at how long it took, but it affects everybody a little bit differently,” LaFleur said Sunday. “We’re just thankful first of all that he is healthy and was able to fight through it. I know there were some scary moments definitely for him in terms of just battling through that. He’s really worked hard and I’ll say Flea (Packers head trainer Bryan Engel) and our athletic trainers have done a great job with him … just trying to get his wind back and get him back in shape, because that knocked him out for quite a while and you never know the effects that that can have one somebody, but he battled, he stayed into it mentally and that’s a credit to him.
Will Dillon Stay Involved Moving Forward?
Dillon confirmed himself to be another weapon for the Packers’ versatile offense against the Titans, but it is entirely possible his breakout game comes and goes without much follow-up in the season finale against the Chicago Bears. It really just depends on the health of the Packers’ other two running backs.
Williams missed Sunday’s game with a quadriceps injury that kept him out of every practice in Week 16 and carries an uncertain status into the final week, potentially leaving the door open for Dillon to once again steadily contribute in his place. Jones has also been dealing with a toe injury and aggravated it against the Titans, hence his diminished role.
The opportunity for Dillon could be huge if neither running back is a full-go against the bears. Chicago has some fearsome defensive pieces in Khalil Mack and Akiem Hicks but rates in the middle of the pack for run defense, allowing 115.7 yards per game. Even if both play, his recent breakout could warrant him getting more than five carries for just the second time this season.