BY GEOFF HOBSON
GEORGETOWN, KY - The Bengals officially become a "grass team" when they open Paul Brown Stadium Saturday night against the Bears. One of the three million reasons they wanted running back Corey Dillon here. And one of three million reasons Dillon is happy he is.
"I love running on grass," Dillon said today before his first practice of the season here at Georgetown College. "I'm better on grass than I am on turf. It's going to take the pressure off my knees and add years to my career."
Dillon's left knee cap has occasionally slid out of place, so the move to grass should help. And he's got an exemplary track record on the stuff. Seven of Dillon's 37 starts have been on grass and he's responded with three 100-yard games, highlighted by last season's 168 yards in Cleveland. His first extended action in the NFL came in relief of Ki-Jana Carter during his rookie year on Mile High Stadium's garden, where he averaged nearly 12 yards on his five carries.
That was in September. The Bengals are thinking about December and, yes, January, when the Tri-State's rain, snow and cold will slow down the fast PB track. The 225-pound Dillon is the quintessential big power back on an NFL tundra. Not only does he fit the stadium, but he fits a playbook in which the base running play is inside and puts a premium on Dillon's power and vision in the hole.
Any doubt the Bengals would make sure they fit in Dillon's $3 million salary for a back that fits them so well?
"Corey is our 16 back," said left tackle Rod Jones, referring to the tackle hole where the Bengals run their signature play. "The other backs we have are good, but they're different. Sedrick Shaw is more of a cutback guy, a slasher. Curtis Keaton is more of a draw back. Speed and quick. Corey is headed straight downhill. Brandon Bennett and Michael Basnight are like that, too. Corey can stretch it and we try to get him cutting it back so he ends up right where he started from."
When it comes to philosophy, Bengals President Mike Brown might be ending up where he started. He remembers 40 years ago when his father, Paul Brown, was coach of the Cleveland Browns and already had the best power back the game has seen before or since in Jim Brown.
But Paul Brown felt he needed two big backs during playoff time on Cleveland's skating rink at Municipal Stadium, and he traded Hall-of-Fame scatback Bobby Mitchell for the first pick in the draft. He took Ernie Davis, the bruising Heisman Trophy winner who savaged Syracuse's Siberian turf for about six yards per carry. Paul Brown never knew if he found the answer to the Packers' Jim Taylor and Paul Hornung because Davis never played a down and died of leukemia two years later.
"Those fields in Cleveland were heavier than what we'll have now," Mike Brown said. "Our field will be better late in the year than that was. But the field is still not going to be as quick in December and January as it is now. This surface suits a player like Corey, who is strong. I look at Barry Sanders and he's the perfect example. He was a phenom on turf. On a grass field in December in Green Bay he didn't do much. His quickness was nullified."
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Dillon's biggest night came on the Cinergy Field turf in early December of his rookie year when he broke Jim Brown's rookie rushing record in a game with 246 yards against Tennessee. But Dillon says he played on grass all through junior college, when had 3,014 yards and 36 touchdowns in two seasons. Then he moved to the University of Washington, where his position coach was current Bengals special teams coach Al Roberts.
"I didn't see a difference," Roberts said. "He went down to USC (grass) and pounded the Trojans and went up to Oregon (turf) and pounded the Ducks. But certainly we'll be very good mudders at home now."
It was at Washington where Dillon ran the base play of 32-zone. The Bengals' 16 is similar in that Dillon relies on seeing holes before the defenders do once he bulls past the line of scrimmage.
"It's basically the same play," Dillon said. "You make a move outside, inside or go up the middle. The ideal is you end up back where you started in the zone."
Which means if all is working right, Dillon is cutting back against overpursuing linebackers as he "reads out," after following the tackle inside.
"If teams think we're running behind one side, that linebacker may get over their real fast," said right tackle Willie Anderson. "Now the running back knows he has two blockers on one guy on the backside. There's a hole. It takes vision to see the whole thing. He has to see the linebacker coming over. If you're playing a disciplined team where the linebacker stays, he can go inside or outside. That's what Corey does. He's a tough, inside runner who can get read it."
Running backs coach Jim Anderson, dean of Bengals position coaches, has tinkered with the basic zone run during the days of Pete Johnson, down through Ickey Woods and James Brooks and then to Harold Green. With the arrival of Ki-Jana Carter in 1995, the Bengals adjusted the play as defenses looked to stack up the run.
"Corey's got great anticipation," Anderson said. "He can make decisions. He can make adjustments on the move and get up the field with power and thrust. The big thing is he's strong enough not to get arm tackled. Linemen can't take him down by just throwing their arms out. He can get it up the field for a sloppy four yards."
Dillon calls it, "My ugly four yards." His career average is actually 4.6. On grass it's 4.7. If the grass is sloppy, it could get ugly for the defense.
"God has blessed me again by putting me on grass," Dillon said.