After a down 2022 season that even AJ Dillon acknowledges wasn’t up to par with his standards, a big emphasis for the Green Bay Packers running back this offseason has been playing with a lower pad level, using his size and strength to his advantage against defenders.
“One thing that we’ve really stressed with him is he’s a big back, and if you lower your pad level, guys don’t want to tackle…When you run like that and run behind your pads and are 245-plus pounds, you can lower the boom on somebody. I think as long as long as he continues to run with low pad level, I think he can be a force.”
Dillon averaged 4.5 yards per rush during his first two seasons but saw his total plummet to only 4.1 yards per carry in 2022. In less than half of the Packers’ 17 games, Dillon averaged more than 4.0 yards per carry, according to PFF.
Despite having almost the same amount of carries in 2022 as he did in 2021, Dillon forced eight fewer missed tackles and went from ranking seventh in yards after contact to 20th–perhaps the most telling stat of the bunch and why there has been an added emphasis on lowering his pad level this offseason.
“It’s a lot easier said than done,” said Dillon on Wednesday when asked about working on his pad level. “It’s something I’ve been trying to make a conscious effort over the entire offseason since it’s been brought up. It’s been something I’ve wanted to work on coming into this year. I think it’s just something in my mind, ‘It’s like, alright, how can I be as dominant as I can be?’
“It’s no shock with my strength, one of my big skills and strengths that I can do, one of my attributes is, if I have that good pad level, and have my shoulders square, I can generate power to keep that pile moving. Run through somebody. Just continue to form that habit is pretty much where I’m at.”
In football, we often hear the phrase “low man wins,” and it’s true because whether it be the ball carrier or the tackler, the lower player will have more leverage. Ball carriers who run upright are the easiest to tackle.
If the running back is able to get lower than the defender and has more leverage, then they can power through the defender and fall forward for another yard or two, or even break the tackle entirely.
“Coach (Ben) Sirmans always talks about, he always says, ‘If you think, you stink,'” said Dillon. “So I’m not out there thinking low pad level. But, for instance, in practice, it’s a great moment to try to over-emphasize. Over-emphasize like, alright, I’m having good pad level. Then hopefully you over-emphasize and it becomes a habit.
“Then when it comes game time, you just do it naturally. So that’s where I’m at. I feel like I had a good practice day with a lot of good pad level. We had a full-pad practice day. I definitely feel good with the practice and where it’s trending.”
Dillon is entering a contract year as he begins his fourth NFL season and the last of his rookie deal. A bounce-back season is not only important for Dillon, who will be a free agent in the offseason, but success in the run game will be a must for this Packers offense as well.
A consistent rushing attack will keep the offense ahead of the chains and Jordan Love and this young group of pass catchers out of predictable passing situations. In general, having a run game to lean on will take some of the playmaking burden off of Love’s shoulders with a sound ground game able to help open up the passing game and create shot-play opportunities off play-action–a key element of the LaFleur offense.
For Dillon, he knows the importance of this season, not only for his own future but also for the 2023 Green Bay Packers. However, his sole focus is currently on what he can control – like pad level – and the chips will fall where they may.
He’s had successes during his time with the Packers and some growing pains, but now knows what he needs to do. Rather than trying to be perfect, as was the case in 2022, Dillon now wants to make sure he’s dominant in 2023.
“Year 4,” said Dillon, “I guess one word would be just dominant. I want to be as dominant as I can be going into this year. I think I had my rookie year of not really knowing. I had my second year coming onto the scene and having a good year. And last year was more like I’m trying to be perfect. I’m trying not to make mistakes. Statistically, as far as missed assignments and things like that, I had a good year there. But I didn’t feel like I was imposing my will against teams.
“But now I feel like it’s combining all of them. Going out there. Playing free. Don’t need to play perfect but now I know what I need to do. I’m comfortable in this offense. I know what I need to do. And I know how I can look at plays, and I can look at games where I’ve been dominant, where my presence has been felt. So putting all that together.”