GREEN BAY — Just as everyone predicted, the Green Bay Packers’ matchup with the Tennessee Titans on Sunday night began with a big, bruising running back being a force in the ground game.
Except it wasn’t 6-foot-3, 247-pound Derrick Henry, the Titans running back who entered the night aiming to become only the eighth player in NFL history to rush for 2,000 yards in a season.
No, it was 6-foot, 247-pound AJ Dillon, the Packers rookie running back who missed six weeks of the season while on the reserve/COVID-19 list and was pressed into action with No. 2 running back Jamaal Williams inactive with a quadriceps injury. Dillon also saw more action with starter Aaron Jones, who was on the injury report during the week with a toe injury, missing part of the first half with a hip injury, although Jones did return to the game.
While their two stars — quarterback Aaron Rodgers (21 of 25, 231 yards, four touchdowns, one interception, 128.1 passer rating) and wide receiver Davante Adams (11 catches for 142 yards and three of those touchdowns) — once again led the way, it was Dillon’s unexpected productivity that wound up being the story of the Packers’ 40-14 win over the Titans at Lambeau Field.
For while Dillon carried 21 times for 124 yards and two touchdowns — marking his first 100-yard game and first forays into the end zone as a pro — the Packers defense was limiting Henry to just 98 yards on 23 carries.
“He’s been through a lot this year, obviously with COVID and the issues with that,” Rodgers said of Dillon. “It was a surprise. Not that we didn’t think he could do this, but we hadn’t seen it. He was bringing it. He was finishing runs the way he really hasn’t up until this point. That was a really good performance by him.”
Dillon came into the game having gotten only 24 carries for 115 yards — including an 18-yard run on his only carry last week against Carolina — because of the time he missed following his Nov. 1 positive COVID-19 test and because the Packers' 1-2 running back punch of Jones and Williams had been so effective. But Packers head coach Matt LaFleur had been looking to get Dillon more involved and expressed confidence in him despite the time he’d missed.
“You never know when your number is going to get called, but you’ve got to be ready,” LaFleur said. “Just for him to stay with it through everything he’s been through, I think that says a lot about him. Just really proud of his effort and just not getting discouraged, because that can be tough on guys, especially when they’re the star in college at that position where you’re getting the bulk of the carries and the bulk of the plays, and then coming in here and not getting a whole lot of action and just never knowing when your number is going to be called.
“I went up to him prior to the game and I said, ‘Hey, you better be ready tonight, we’re coming to you.’ And I was just happy that we finally delivered on that, because I feel like we’ve said that a few times now. For him to step up, be ready to go and just run really well and violent and physical, and did a nice job in the pass game, I think that gives everybody a lot of confidence.”
With center Corey Linsley back in action after missing three games with a knee injury suffered against the Chicago Bears on Nov. 29, the Packers started yet another iteration of their offensive line on Sunday night: David Bakhtiari at left tackle, Elgton Jenkins back at left guard, Linsley at center, Billy Turner at right guard and Ricky Wagner at right tackle — with guard Lucas Patrick ending up on the bench after a couple of uneven performances of late.
And, just as things have gone all season up front, the unit didn’t stay that way.
Wagner left the game midway through the third quarter with what appeared to be a knee injury, leading to yet another shuffling on the line. This time, it was only two spots, with Patrick coming off the bench to play right guard and Turner shifting to right tackle, the position he’s spent the most time at this season.
“I’d be remiss to not mention the offensive line, just how they protected, how they opened up holes in the run game,” LaFleur said, interrupting himself while discussing the offensive highlights. “We always talk about it taking all 11.”
Safety Darnell Savage, the second of the team’s two 2019 first-round picks, continued his emergence with an interception — his fourth in the past five games.
Savage, who started 14 regular-season games last season as a rookie but had a minimal impact due in part to an ankle injury that nagged him most of the season, had two INTs against Chicago on Nov. 29 and had another against Philadelphia on Dec. 6.
His pick of Titans quarterback Ryan Tannehill during the second quarter set up the Packers’ third touchdown of the night, giving them a 19-0 lead at the time.
“I would say it’s just opportunities,” Savage replied when asked what has changed for him this season. “I feel like I’ve really just kind of settled in. Everything out there, it feels easy again. So, I’m comfortable.”
The Packers’ much-maligned special teams units had more problems on Sunday night — although a sketchy offsides penalty saved them from one disastrous play.
Kicker Mason Crosby missed his fourth extra point of the season, and at least momentarily, his perfect season on field-goal attempts was ruined as well when the Titans’ Jack Crawford blocked his 35-yard field-goal attempt in the second quarter and Amani Hooker returned the ball to the Green Bay 20-yard line.
But referee Brad Allen’s crew flagged Titans defensive back Joshua Kalu for being lined up offsides on the kick — replays appeared to show him on Tennessee’s side of the line of scrimmage — and the play was wiped out.
Facing a fourth-and-3 after the penalty, LaFleur opted to send the offense back onto the field instead of having Crosby kick a 30-yard field goal. That decision backfired when Rodgers absorbed a 17-yard sack, and the Titans took over. Tennessee drove 71 yards on the ensuing possession for their first touchdown of the game, a 12-yard Jonnu Smith scoring grab from Tannehill to make it 19-7.
Using his legs
Rodgers had his longest run of the season during the first quarter, a 14-yard scramble that kept the Packers’ second touchdown drive alive.
Of course, that run didn’t cover nearly as much ground as a meaningless 5-yard gain near the end of the first half. On that play, Rodgers rolled to his left toward the Packers sideline, looking for a deep downfield throw, found no one open, then reversed his field and ran clear across the field and scrambled for the 5-yard pickup before getting out of bounds into the Titans’ bench area. Considering an NFL field is 53 1/3 yards wide, Rodgers probably ran 80 yards to gain 5.
“Man, I was tired. I was tired,” a laughing Rodgers recounted. “I think (at halftime) I had to walk up the tunnel (instead of jogging) because I was a little gassed by that. I had a fun little exchange on the sideline; not sure if the mics picked up any of that stuff. Definitely one where if any of those guys had been mic’d up, it would have been a good one to go back and look at in a few years.”
Despite a brief lapse, the Packers kept the pedal to the metal for 60 minutes by getting huge production from quarterback Aaron Rodgers, wide receiver Davante Adams and running backs AJ Dillon and Aaron Jones, they didn't let Derrick Henry beat them with his wheels and they manhandled a likely playoff-bound team.
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