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On a Cold January Night, It’s Dillon Time

All season, AJ Dillon as delivered the hard yardage for the Green Bay Packers. He must deliver again in Saturday night's frigid playoff game against the San Francisco 49ers.

GREEN BAY, Wis. – When it’s 10 degrees, everything is more difficult. Throwing the football is hard. Catching it is hard. Kicking it is hard.

And tackling a 247-pound man is hard, too.

AJ Dillon was drafted by the Green Bay Packers in the second round last year because he’s a complete back. He was unstoppable as a workhorse runner at Boston College, and his pass-catching ability is exactly what the team projected.

Now, it’s January. The Packers are two wins from the Super Bowl. They’ve got the coveted homefield advantage for Saturday’s NFC divisional playoff game against the San Francisco 49ers. Games like this are another reason why the Packers drafted Dillon. On what’s going to be a cold night, Dillon could help carry the Packers to a third consecutive trip to the NFC Championship Game.

Dillon was a nonfactor for the Week 3 game against the 49ers. In fact, he was a nonfactor to start the season with just 15 carries in the first three games. But, partially because Aaron Jones was limited by a knee injury, Dillon became the primary ball-carrier down the stretch. From Week 4 through Week 18, Dillon ranked 12th with 748 rushing yards.

“He’s been getting better throughout the year,” 49ers defensive coordinator DeMeco Ryans told reporters on Wednesday. “I can see his carries increasing and you see him running the ball much better. What challenge does he present? I don’t think it’s a huge challenge. We just have to play defense how we play defense. And that’s just everybody swarming to the ball. Everybody just being where they’re supposed to be and trying to play as physical as possible. That’s how you handle him. It’s not going to be one guy taking him down. You see on film multiple times, one guy coming in, he does a good job of running defenders over, just dragging guys along. So, it is going to take more than one person to tackle AJ because he is such a big, strong, physical runner.”

Of 45 backs 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. It’s rarely been pretty. Most of the time, Dillon has been a sledgehammer, turning a run that’s been blocked for 2 yards into a gain of 5 or plowing ahead for 2 yards to power the NFL’s top-ranked short-yardage offense.

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“He’s just a different type of back,” quarterback Aaron Rodgers said earlier this season “He’s a cold-weather Green Bay back that we’ve had over the years. … And, man, he’s been really sharp. I’ve been really impressed with that. As the leader and someone who likes to use my brain to win games, when somebody can match that preparedness like he has, it gives me a lot of confidence. I’m really proud of that kind of jump that he’s made in the past year. Running the ball, he’s a bowling ball. He’s got a lot of weight behind the ball.”

While he hasn’t had a run of longer than 11 yards since Week 9, Dillon has shown his worth under the primetime lights in a couple late-season home games. Against the Rams in Week 12, Dillon carried 20 times for only 69 yards. According to PFF, 61 of those came after contact. Against the Vikings in Week 17, Dillon carried 14 times for 63 yards. According to PFF, 41 of those came after contact.

“Being from BC, I can go out here in the cold weather,” Dillon said before the Minnesota game. “We have a lot of guys from the East Coast and the Midwest on the team. We have a lot of guys who are used to playing in this environment and these conditions. I do feel like there is kind of a – not an upper hand – but a familiarity. It’s funny, I was talking to Jonesy today at practice, I’m just like ‘This is what you expect. Whatever you do, do not go ahead and take your cold hands and put them in something hot and try to run back out there. It’s going to be a lot worse for you.’ It’s funny, got a bunch of a jokes for the guys from the warm states.”

Matt LaFleur’s offense – no different than Kyle Shanahan’s 49ers offense – is predicated on running the football and setting up similar-looking passes. On play-action this season, Rodgers has completed 71.5 percent of his passes with 10 touchdowns and zero interceptions with a 118.3 passer rating.

The Packers will have to run the football on Saturday night. The 49ers’ pass rush has been dominant the past couple games, so Green Bay can’t afford to roll with a one-sided offense. It will be up to Dillon and Jones to grind out the tough yards, like they have all season, and reward the Packers for their lofty investments in terms of draft picks (Dillon) and money (Jones).

On a cold night, with so much at stake, Dillon must lower the boom against a defense that is hell-bent on stopping him, well, cold.

“We definitely have to tackle better,” Ryans said when asked about Week 3. “We gave up too much leaky yardage. I’m showing the guys the film like, we tackle a guy, we got a body on him at 2 yards and a run that should be 2 yards, it ends up going for 6 yards and we have to make sure that we have guys at a 2-yard gain. It has to be a 2-yard gain, so we can’t allow leaky yardage, the yards after contact there. That was the issue in the first game and we just have to populate the football much better. We have to have more guys show up around the ball because both of their backs are really talented backs, so we have to just swarm and tackle better.”