GREEN BAY, Wis. – At the 1-yard line, a bruising running back like AJ Dillon would seem like a logical choice.
Give the 6-foot, 247-pound, second-year punisher the ball and let him barrel into the end zone.
It wasn’t in last Thursday’s game at the Arizona Cardinals. Not on first down. Not on second down. Not on any down on that fourth-quarter series that ended with Aaron Rodgers’ fourth-and-goal pass from the 1-yard line getting batted down.
It’s perhaps one of the things that LaFleur was -- as Rodgers put it -- “probably kicking himself about a couple of the calls" after the game. Or even in the days that followed.
“Certainly there’s a couple plays, no doubt about it, I’d like to have back in terms of the call and really giving our guys the best chance to go out there and succeed,” LaFleur said after getting the chance to watch the game film.
“That’s a salty defense, especially down in the red zone. They threw in their 6-2 [alignment], their big people, and it’s tough to run against. But I do think there’s potentially some things we can do a little bit better from a schematic standpoint, and just basically I gotta give them a better play call.”
But here’s the rub: LaFleur also has the masterful Rodgers and a slippery running back in Aaron Jones, who’s had a way of finding the end zone. Jones' second-quarter touchdown from the 2-yard line was his 28th rushing score since the start of the 2019 season. Only two backs (Derrick Henry with 43 and Dalvin Cook with 31) in the NFL have more.
And then there were Dillon’s two fumbles in the previous game against Washington.
Whatever went into the decision, in some ways having Jones and Dillon can be viewed as a good problem to have but not an easy one to solve.
“I don't call the plays or anything like that,” Dillon said when asked if he would’ve liked an opportunity at the goal line. “Whenever I’m out there I’m trying to put the team in the best position to win. Everybody we have out there is capable of getting a touchdown, getting a first down, whatever the case may be.”
Or perhaps LaFleur’s analytics staff reminded him of this: Earlier this season, Dillon carried three times in goal-to-goal situations. On first-and-goal from the 6 against the Bengals, he gained 1 yard. On second-and-goal from the 5, he gained 1 yard. Also, in the game at Chicago, he lost 6 yards on first-and-goal from the 9 but had no chance as the Bears swarmed him as soon as he took the handoff from Rodgers out of the shotgun.
Last year, Dillon had only two such attempts. He gained 2 yards on first-and-goal from the 9 and then scored from the 7. Both came in his breakout game against the Titans in Week 16, when he rushed for 124 yards and two touchdowns on 21 carries.
That was the first game that gave the Packers a glimpse at what Dillon and Jones could provide as a combination. Jones rushed for 94 yards on 10 carries in that same game.
In some ways, Dillon’s performance against the Cardinals was just as good. Of his 78 yards on 16 carries, 59 of them came in the first half, when LaFleur wisely chewed up clock to make up for the loss of his top three receivers. Of those 78 yards, 50 came after contact, according to ESPN Stats & Information.
Dillon has the NFL’s highest average yards after contact per carry since the start of the 2020 season, matching Baltimore’s J.K. Dobbins (who is out this season) at 2.47. Jones ranks fifth on that list at 2.35. Together, Dillon and Jones combined for 72 yards after contact against the Cardinals.
“Those guys ran extremely tough; they broke a lot of tackles,” LaFleur said. “They ran behind their pads. They made people miss. They complemented each other very well. I thought our guys up front were really battling too and getting after it.”
However the Packers decide to use Dillon, who has the nicknames of ‘Quadzilla’ and ‘The Quadfather’ because of his massive legs, it can only help as the season progresses and the running game becomes even more important in the Green Bay weather conditions.
“I think that the way that he’s played is outstanding, I really do,” Rodgers said. “I think the way that he’s grown as a pass-catcher and as a runner, last year, it was a lot of downhill and not a lot of cuts. I think his foot speed has gotten better, he’s running behind his pads now.
“I mean, he’s a big man. I mean, he’s got a huge quads and lower half. But he’s running behind his pads now. He’s doing a good job with his leverage and his body lean, and he’s inflicting the punishment instead of last year. I think he was running a little higher and kind of taking some shots. But he’s elusive, and it’s a good 1-2 punch for us.”