The Thread: AJ Dillon has arrived so, yes, the Green Bay Packers can win it all

The Packers finally unleashed their rookie back on the world and it was glorious. Here is why Dillon makes them a true Super Bowl contender. Also inside: What is Brian Flores thinking in Miami?

AJ Dillon knew.

The Green Bay Packers knew.

And, honestly, that’s all that mattered. As everyone collectively lost their minds over the Packers’ 2020 draft and Dillon accumulated all of 24 carries over the first 14 weeks of this season, no doubt, Matt LaFleur knew he had a stud on ice the whole time. Frankly, the Packers didn’t need to use their six-foot, 247-pound rookie running back. Until Sunday night. Until the Packers unleashed this sledgehammer on the Tennessee Titans in a 40-14 statement win at Lambeau Field.

Go Long chatted with Dillon at length for this Friday Feature on why the Packers’ plan was so genius. On Sunday night, that genius was put into action. Dillon bashed the Titans for 124 yards on 21 carries (5.9 avg.) with two touchdowns. One score came on fourth and 1. The other? Dillon rammed right through the teeth of the Titans’ defense to close out the win.

We know Aaron Rodgers is Aaron Rodgers. An MVP candidate.

We know Davante Adams is Davante Adams. Arguably the best wide receiver in football.

But this was the brilliance all along: AJ Dillon makes this a team that can truly beat anyone in the winter months. AJ Dillon is what Eddie Lacy was supposed to be — a large, muscular, machine of a back who is fully committed. A workhorse back capable of wearing out a defense for four quarters this time of year changes everything, even for a team with a quarterback so good. Green Bay thought that Lacy was that back seven years ago when it took him in the second round and Lacy brought the Packers oh… so… close to a Super Bowl return.

Then, he ate his way out of the league. Lacy just didn’t eat, sleep ‘n breathe the game itself like Dillon does.

Dillon is a large human, yes, but one with 7.8 percent body fat.  

No question, LaFleur had visions of the back he coached in Tennessee, Derrick Henry, in drafting Dillon No. 62 overall. He wanted a bruising, one-cut back to fuel his offense and, as Dillon pointed out himself, his numbers at the Combine were actually better than Henry’s workout. He’s every bit as freakish. He possesses the size, the speed, the desire and, as Sunday night proves, the acumen needed to keep up in this offense.

For all of Rodgers’ Canton-bound talent, he’s prone to shrink in big moments. He has struggled mightily in NFC Championship games and this offense has the tendency to try to throw and throw and throw its way out of jams every postseason. Just one week ago, the Packers nearly blew a lead to the Carolina Panthers because they were so pass-happy. That wasn’t a problem against the Titans. Once the Packers got their double-digit lead, they had no problem feeding Dillon and shredding the Titans for 234 rushing yards as a team. (And Rodgers went an efficient 21 of 25.)

Henry? The other MVP candidate? His longest run went for 10 yards.

The Packers ran the ball. The Packers stopped the run. This all felt like a Christmas miracle.

Again, Dillon didn’t hide from that Henry comp. After this one, he said Henry is someone he still studies a ton on film.

“Being the rushing king two years in a row, obviously big respect to him and just to kind of be in the same talking point, it's a huge honor,” Dillon said. “I'm just looking to get better, but it was obviously a really fun experience for me. I respect the heck out of that guy and I'm constantly watching his film to figure out ways to get better.

“I feel like I kind of sneak up on people, that I got a little bit of speed being as big as I am.”

Thus, it cannot be understated: Sunday night was a major breakthrough because the Packers can win the Super Bowl playing like this. As long as Rodgers is OK taking a backseat in that championship moment, it’s clear LaFleur has the system and the personnel to pound away at defenses on the ground with Dillon, with Aaron Jones, with Jamaal Williams all running behind the best offensive line in football.

One more win and the road to the Super Bowl goes through frigid Green Bay where temps will creep below zero.

You want a 247-pounder punishing all visitors.

Be it the Buccaneers (and their No. 1-ranked run defense) or the Saints (a team dying to hoist the Lombardi Trophy after all of their playoff heartbreak) or the Seahawks (and their suddenly-surging defense), this is precisely the weapon who can be the difference. The Packers have been missing an element of toughness since winning the Super Bowl in 2010.

As Dillon explained in our story last month, his toughness traces back to his Mom who had him at 20 years old and worked five jobs at a time to support the family. Teaching. Waitressing. Jessyca Gatewood-Campbell jammed as many hours of work into the day as she could and she was a tough grader as a sixth-grade teacher, too. A stickler for organization, Gatewood-Campbell made sure her students wrote a “Table of Contents” on Page 1 of their notebooks.

Which is why Dillon is so incredibly organized today.

Even as so many wrote him off as a wasted pick, Dillon had his own goals in 2020.

“I’m a big list guy. I’m a big goal-setter,” Dillon said earlier this year. “When I first got to (Boston College), my goal was to win the Heisman, rookie of the year, this, that, break this record. But the further I got through my career, what meant more to me was being dependable and gaining the respect of my teammates. So, if I were to make a table of contents of what I want to do this year, I’d want to get drafted, make a team and then I just want to be dependable. I want to be known as, ‘AJ Dillon had this many yards, that and that, but you knew he was going to get the job done.’ The fans in the crowd knew he was going to get the job done. The coaches. The GM. Everybody knew he was going to get the job done. So that’s important to me. Just to be respected by my game.”

One of his goals in life is to make enough money so his sister, who’s 14 years younger, doesn’t have to pay a dime to go to college. His sister’s already a prodigy of sorts in her own right. She knows sign language and has read all the Harry Potter books cover to cover so maybe she won’t even need the help. Either way, Dillon is always finding motivation.

And if he plays like this, anything is possible.

The Packers can win the Super Bowl.

The Packers sure as hell won’t need to pay Aaron Jones.

Dillon will ram through NFL defenses for a very long time.

None of this shocks him. When we chatted, Dillon did not hesitate for one second when asked if he’s the best back in the draft, better than Clyde Edwards-Helaire and D’Andre Swift and Jonathan Taylor.

“Absolutely. Without a doubt.”

Now, there’s proof.

Mindless in Miami

Brian Flores cannot look at his players with a straight face and claim the Miami Dolphins’ primary objective this season is to win and — at the same time — start rookie Tua Tagovailoa over Ryan Fitzpatrick in Week 17 against the Buffalo Bills. Not after yet another example that Fitzpatrick clearly gives this team the best chance to win now.

You’ve seen the highlight by now: Fitz heaving a miracle 34-yarder to Mack Hollins while his head’s getting ripped off.

Fitzpatrick, of course, was in the game after Flores benched Tagovailoa a second time this season. (He did so against Denver, too.) Afterward, the coach tried to sell this all in baseball terms, likening Fitzpatrick to a “relief pitcher” in the ninth inning. Whatever. By now, it is abundantly clear what both of these players are at this stage of their career. The 22-year-old Tagovailoa isn’t going to screw up much out there but he sure isn’t going to make plays downfield. He’s thrown 10 touchdowns and two picks, while averaging a meager 161.4 passing yards per game. The 38-year-old Fitzpatrick is going to take those chances and, yeah, it’s going to get him into trouble sometimes. He’s thrown 13 touchdowns and eight picks, while averaging 232.3 passing yards per game — and that’s including the two abbreviated games of “relief” work.  

He’ll give his receivers a shot.

He’ll take a chance.

He’ll at least give this playoff-worthy team a puncher’s chance against the loaded offenses in the AFC… and you play to win the game.

What if Fitz’s unprecedented career that has spanned 16 seasons with eight different teams has led directly to this playoff run? He’s not just a bearded meme to share with your friends, no, Fitzpatrick has been legitimately great whenever given the chance to let’r rip this season. And yet, there was Flores on Sunday defending his decision to spin that carousel back to Tagovailoa.

“Tua has brought us a spark in a lot of other games. I think people will just forget that because we just remember the last thing,” Flores said. “Speculation on whatever people want to speculate about as far as what we should or shouldn't do based on last night, I wouldn't do that and forget the body of work over the course of the season to include the last however many games Tua has been starting. I think he's played fairly well.”

If performing “fairly well” is the goal in 2020 then, hey, by all means start the rookie.

This isn’t meant to bash Tua Tagovailoa. Maybe he is good one day. Right now, he is an extremely cautious rookie who needs an ultra-productive defense to win. (And, obviously, the Dolphins have to be kicking themselves for not drafting Justin Herbert right now.) There are only two explanations for going back to Tagovailoa.

Either a.) the Dolphins are worried about hurting a rookie’s psyche by benching him in a must-win Week 17. Which would be crazy. If your rookie is genuinely hurt by such a decision, he’ll never be equipped for the highs and lows of the job. Or b.) the Dolphins seriously think their best shot at making a run at the Super Bowl is with Tagovailoa. Which is just wrong.

We’ve seen smart defensive-minded head coaches botch this position before. Another one who’s gotten Coach of the Year chatter, Buffalo’s Sean McDermott, trotted Nathan Peterman out as his starter. Twice! Flores is clearly one of the better coaches in the NFL. He somehow got a team to buy in and bust ass last year when the overarching goal clearly was to lose — if there’s an art to tanking, he was Picasso. Yet no way are the Tua-led Dolphins beating the Bills if the Bills have something to play for in the season finale.

Fitz? Against his former team?

What a missed opportunity for a “Fitz Bowl” to remember.

The Jamal Adams Effect

The price seemed unbelievably steep. Too steep. To recap: The Seattle Seahawks traded two first-round picks, a third-rounder and Bradley McDougald to the New York Jets for an unhappy safety (Jamal Adams) and a fourth.

To repeat: a safety.

We’ve seen blockbuster trades for other players the last few years but those stars played premium positions: cornerback Jalen Ramsey, left tackle Laremy Tunsil, pass rusher Khalil Mack. Not safety. The Seahawks’ calculated gamble was that Adams was a rare breed, that Adams was something special, that Adams was precisely the player who’d inject life into a lifeless defense post-Legion of Boom. Now we know they were absolutely right.  

OK, so there are deficiencies in pass coverage. He’s not as fluid in space as free safeties like Kevin Byard and Minkah Fitzpatrick but every championship defense needs a weapon capable of changing the game with one play and that’s precisely what Adams has done repeatedly this season. His touchdown-saving tackle on Darrell Henderson was the difference in Seattle’s NFC West-clinching, 20-9 win over the Los Angeles Rams.

This play won’t be making the rounds on the cable debate shows this AM but it is the play we should all be talking about. At his own seven-yard line, up 13-6, Adams set up to blitz off the right edge. Rams quarterback Jared Goff appeared to realize this, audibled to a run away from that blitz and — on the surface — Henderson’s five-yard dash seemed like a Rams win. It set up a first and goal from the 2. But after Adams chased Henderson down to save that touchdown, the Seahawks stopped LA on four straight plays.

That’s Adams’ impact.

He’s the best blitzer in the game with 9.5 sacks and 56 solo tackles in 11 games this season. He’s been covering just fine of late, too. After a historically bad start, Seattle’s pass defense has steadied with exceptional games against Carson Wentz (73.8 passer rating), Colt McCoy (67.4), Sam Darnold (68.1), Dwayne Haskins (72.9) and Goff (61.6). This obviously is the soft stretch of the schedule but perfect timing nonetheless — Seattle is riding high into the playoffs.

Adams gives the unit bite, too.

Anyone who’s ever been in the same room as the 2017 sixth overall pick can feel his passion for winning. We hung out at his place for this Q&A ahead of the ‘18 season and Adams was not shy in detailing just how much that culture in New York needed to change. He said when he got to New York everyone “was used to losing” and doing “bare minimum.” Nobody wanted to go above and beyond and throw themselves into “uncomfortable” situations to be great — when he knew that’s what it took.

Adams caught a lot of flak after that piece ran but, to his credit, Adams didn’t back down. He didn’t claim to be taken out of context like so many athletes do. He stood by his words.

Now, in Seattle, he’s around manic competitors just like himself — guys like Russell Wilson, Chris Carson, Tyler Lockett and Bobby Wagner.

Revamping this defense in a post-LOB world has not been easy.  

But with Adams, this defense can impose its will on opponents once again.  

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No-Huddle

  • Congrats to the Jaguars! They didn’t screw this up, were blown out by the Bears and, now, can draft Trevor Lawrence No. 1 in April. If I’m a GM or head coach who can pick his own destination — next to the opportunity to coach Deshaun Watson in Houston — I’m taking that Jaguars job. There’s actually some promising talent on offense to work with and Lawrence is the generational piece who’ll make everyone better.

  • Pittsburgh saved its season with a comeback win over Indy. It was ugly for a while but Ben Roethlisberger stopped dinkin’ and dunkin’ and went deep to his stable of receivers. There’s no use waiting around for this 32nd-ranked running game to rev up. It’s nonexistent. It’s not going to wake up out of its four-month slumber. The Steelers’ best shot at winning it all is slinging the ball 40-plus times a game to JuJu Smith-Schuster, Diontae Johnson and Chase Claypool. And instead of trying to move down the field one four-yard pass at a time like they were through a three-game losing streak, they’ve got to go deep — just like they did against the Colts in the second half. Roethlisberger completed 34 of 49 passes for 342 yards with three touchdowns, no interceptions and the Steelers won the AFC North. Right when it looked like this team was dead and they’d need to gracefully push Roethlisberger into retirement, there’s still hope in 2020. (We’ll have a Steelers-themed feature this Friday you won’t want to miss, too.)

  • Against the sixth-best run defense in the NFL, what did the Ravens do? Roll to 249 rushing yards on 40 attempts. Lamar Jackson had a 111.5 passer rating through the air, too. Nobody wants to play this team and this quarterback right now. When this run game is rolling downhill, there isn’t a defense in the NFL that can stop it.

  • Wouldn’t you just love to see what Sam Darnold could do in a non-Adam Gase offense? Ryan Tannehill is a completely different quarterback away from Gase. And there were more sporadic signs in a 23-16 win over the Browns that Darnold could still be special with a new coach and new weapons around him. One of the biggest bummers out of the Jets inexplicably winning back-to-back games is that Darnold might be stuck there another year. Hopefully, for his sake, it’s with a different coach.

  • Bad turns to worse for the Rams with Goff breaking his thumb in that Seattle loss. Early reports made it sound like he’d try playing through it against Arizona this week, a game the Rams have to win. Without Goff, what began as such a promising season for LA just might be finished.

  • Send Deshaun Watson help. ASAP. He was exceptional again against Cincinnati but no one watched and no one cared because the Texans’ season is over.

  • Did you catch the mustard on Tom Brady’s touchdown pass to Antonio Brown Saturday? Holy. It almost looked like a different quarterback throwing that pass, someone half his age. We should take this quarterback and this team very seriously right now. Brady showed zero signs of aging in that 47-7 thrashing of the Lions.

Go Long Zoom Update

We’ll get these started this Friday for you, the subscribers. I know it’s New Year’s Day, so no sweat if you’ve got plans. But if anybody wants to hop on Zoom, crack open a beer and talk some football together, the log-in information is below. I’m open to discussing anything you guys want. Feel free to join and don’t be shy!

(Note: I’ll share the Zoom information each week right here in The Thread)

Date: Jan 1, 2021, 6 pm (EST)

Link: https://us02web.zoom.us/j/89599145743?pwd=SEtXM3g1cGhUSHpmdXZYSVY2UUt6Zz09

Meeting ID: 895 9914 5743

Passcode: 062795