Packers getting their best weapons on the field by using Aaron Jones and AJ Dillon together
GREEN BAY - Matt LaFleur gave potential playoff opponents something new to think about Sunday in the Green Bay Packers’ blowout win over Minnesota.
With the playoffs around the corner, teams now have a full season of videotape to study on each other. So LaFleur reached into his playbook and gave his longest look yet to a lineup that included both featured running backs, Aaron Jones and AJ Dillon, on the field at the same time.
Until Sunday night, LaFleur had played Jones and Dillon together for a total of 18 snaps in the first 15 games. Then in the Packers’ 37-10 win over the Vikings, LaFleur paired them on seven plays in the first three quarters, before the game got well out of hand.
The bigger dose of Jones and Dillon probably served a couple purposes. Foremost, it’s a way for LaFleur to get his best offensive weapons on the field together. After Davante Adams, the Packers' most talented skill players around Rodgers are Jones and Dillon. So even though Jones and Dillon play the same position, using them at the same time is a way to get the four best offensive weapons on the field.
The pairing also gives defensive coordinators something new to prepare for in the playoffs, and Sunday showed a glimpse of the myriad ways in which the two can be deployed.
Statistically, it was a success. The seven plays gained 52 yards, or an average of 7.4 yards. Jones picked up 10 yards on two touches, Dillon 12 on two touches, and receiver Allen Lazard had two catches for 30 yards. Rodgers also overthrew a wide-open Dillon with a pass rusher in his face.
The variety of plays LaFleur called showed how using the two together can stretch defenses horizontally and occupy linebackers, because both players are threats defenses have to honor.
The first time they were together, Jones lined up at flanker and ran jet motion, which has been something of a forgotten motion for LaFleur this year after being a staple his first two seasons as coach. Rodgers got the ball to Jones, who picked up four yards. It officially was a pass because Rodgers pitched the ball forward, but in effect it was a jet sweep.
Later in the quarter Jones and Dillon lined up in the backfield together before Jones went in motion to the left. Rodgers threw him a quick swing pass that picked up six yards.
Jones ran the same motion on a play in the second quarter, but this time Rodgers faked a handoff to Dillon up the middle and had all day in the pocket before hitting Lazard over the middle.
Later in the second quarter Jones again went in motion, and this time Rodgers handed off to Dillon going the other way. Linebacker Eric Kendricks took a step toward Jones at the snap, which was just enough to take him out of the play and helped Dillon pick up five yards.
And three plays after that, Jones went in motion to his left, and this time Rodgers faked a handoff to Dillon going right. All three linebackers – Kendricks, Anthony Barr and Blake Lynch – were occupied by the running backs. Barr went with Jones in the flat, while Kendricks and Lynch honored the play fake, which left Lazard wide open behind them for an easy 17-yard completion.
In the third quarter Jones motioned left, and Rodgers faked a receiver bubble screen to him before handing off to Dillon going right. With the defense stretched horizontally, Dillon picked up eight yards.
And the final time the two backs were on the field together Jones again went in motion to his left, and Rodgers faked a run by Dillon to the right. Dillon then was wide open in the right flat, but Rodgers had to make a quick and awkward throw with a rusher in his face and overshot Dillon on what probably would have been a gain of 10 yards or more if the ball had been on target.
Pairing Jones and Dillon is an early-down personnel grouping – LaFleur used them together only on first and second downs – but it does pose problems for defenses. Linebackers, as noted, have to honor them, which can open play-action passes over the middle. And safeties have to play honest or risk getting gashed if they cheat too much to one back or the other.
It’s not like LaFleur is remaking his offense in January, but teams need to evolve as the season goes on to avoid becoming too predictable. Now the Packers’ first playoff opponent has something to think about that wasn’t much on the radar even a couple weeks ago.
Shutting down Dalvin Cook
The Packers put the clamps on Vikings running back Dalvin Cook, though it comes with a big caveat.
Cook, one of the game’s best backs, gained only 13 yards on nine carries. The caveat is that with overwhelmed Sean Mannion at quarterback instead of Kirk Cousins (COVID-19 list), the Packers could devote their personnel and mind-set to stopping Cook without having to worry about the passing game beating them. Getting way ahead early in the second half also took the Vikings out of any plans to run the ball for 60 minutes.
Still, the Packers made the plays in the run game, in large part because outside linebackers Rashan Gary and Preston Smith were much more sound playing the edges than they’d been the past month.
The Vikings tried to attack the edges much like Cleveland and Baltimore had the previous two weeks, but Gary and Smith consistently stayed square to the line of scrimmage and didn’t get caught shooting up field trying to make a big play.
A couple runs late in the second quarter summed up how Gary played all game.
On first down, Gary was textbook while playing a run right at him. He stayed square to the line of scrimmage while taking on tight end Tyler Conklin’s block, then squeezed down the hole to the inside, which left Cook nowhere to go but parallel to the line of scrimmage. The cavalry chased him out of bounds for only a one-yard gain.
The next play, same thing. Gary took on tackle Olisaemeka Udoh, stayed square to the line, shed the block and dropped Cook for a one-yard loss.
Same for Smith on a first-down run in the middle of the third quarter. On a run at him, Smith took on tackle Brian O’Neill and rather than shooting up field stayed square enough to the line to force Cook to bounce outside him. Smith then shed O’Neill and dropped Cook for a five-yard loss.
The question now is whether Gary and Smith will remain this sound in their run techniques when facing a quarterback they’ll feel urgency to pressure in the playoffs.
* Lazard’s leaping 20-yard touchdown catch in the corner of the end zone was his most eye-catching play Sunday, but it’s also clear he’s taking over much of injured tight end Robert Tonyan’s role as Rodgers’ favorite target over the middle.
* Young guards Royce Newman and Jon Runyan Jr. are showing improvement late in the season. Newman, a rookie, still has his occasional bad play, but his ability to get off combination blocks and wall off linebackers is one of the reasons the Packers’ inside run game is flourishing.