Dillon was happy to carry the load
TEMPE, Ariz. -- It was the kind of game Corey Dillon was brought to New England to win.
Everything was just a little off kilter yesterday in the steam heat at Sun Devil Stadium. High emotion was in the air like static electricity in anticipation of the halftime retirement of the number worn by former Arizona Cardinals safety Pat Tillman, who walked away from a lucrative pro football career to become an Army Ranger and paid the ultimate price for that decision during a firefight in Afghanistan. While the Cardinals were returning to Tempe for an emotional homecoming, the Patriots had not played in 10 days following their own emotional home opener against the Colts. Everything was ripe for a letdown, but Dillon wouldn't let that happen.
The powerful running back, acquired in the offseason for a second-round draft choice, was imported to give New England the kind of running game it could rely on in situations like this, on a day when Tom Brady was throwing an atypical two interceptions and the offense was turning the ball over three times. No one was committing any mortal sins, but when things are off just a bit and you let a lackluster team like the Cardinals hang around long enough, bad things can happen.
In other years they might have, but you can avoid that kind of mess by giving the ball to Dillon, which New England did 32 times in a 23-12 victory over Arizona before an announced crowd of 51,557 mostly Patriot-clad fans. What that decision led to was an offense that for once ran considerably more than it passed (42 rushes to 26 throws) and, more importantly, ran over the Cardinals' defense whenever it was most needed.
"Corey ran hard," Patriots center Dan Koppen said. "He was always moving forward. It makes it so much easier for us with a back like Corey. It makes teams worry about two threats -- Tom and the receivers and a big back. It gives us multiple options."
Dillon was the first of those options in the two critical moments of the game -- at the start, when New England was piling up a 14-0 lead that proved insurmountable for the lowly Cardinals, and late when the Patriots wanted to run down the clock while sitting somewhat uncomfortably on a 11-point lead.
In both those instances, Dillon got the ball and he got it many other times as well, finishing with 158 yards on those 32 carries, only the second time a Patriot back had rushed for more than 100 yards in the last 25 games.
"Corey got the ball early and often and he really took advantage of it," Brady said. "He rarely came off the field. He's such a powerful guy."
That was a theme no matter what direction you turned yesterday. Dillon was so reliable so often that he produced the same amount of rushing yards in the first half -- 79 -- as he did in the second half. He needed two more carries to get those yards in the last two quarters, but by then he had to be exhausted at the load he was carrying. In the fourth quarter alone, Dillon carried 11 times, including nine in the final 14 plays from scrimmage that did not involve the kicking game or Brady taking a knee. When it came time to establish early dominance, Dillon got the ball. When it was time to close out the game, Dillon got the ball. Frankly, that's why they got Dillon.
"I expected us to be balanced," Dillon said. "I didn't kow really how many carries I was going to get. He [coach Bill Belichick] just told me to be prepared and if we feed you take advantage of the opportunity."
He did by taking care of the Cardinals' defensive weaknesses and overpowering them. In each of the first three quarters, for example, Dillon had a double-digit run with longs of 17, 13, and 14 yards, respectively, in each of those quarters. In the first quarter, as the Patriots were trying to convince the young Cardinals of how desperate their situation was, he got the ball eight times and pounded out 51 yards with a 17-yard gain the first time he carried that easily could have gone a lot farther with a little luck.
In the fourth quarter, Dillon carried 11 times and piled up another 45 yards, meaning 96 of his 158 yards came at the two most critical junctures of the contest. If there was a need to advertise the reason he was brought on board to replace the slow Antowain Smith, this game was it.
"They ran for a lot of yards, which put even more pressure on us," Cardinals coach Dennis Green said. "I think we're still not playing very good run defense."
A back like Dillon can make a coach think that way. He can make a coach believe it's about his defense and not about the runner who has been shredding it, when in fact it was the other way around.
"Corey got a lot of yards on his own," Belichick said. "We blocked some good holes for him and he ran hard and moved the pile and broke some tackles. It was a hot day and he was carrying a lot on his shoulders. He ran tough all four quarters."
He ran toughest when his team needed him most, which was in a game that could have slipped away but didn't because Dillon took care of moving the ball while his defense kept limiting the Cardinals to field goals when they needed touchdowns.
Such a performance is the sign of a team that not only knows how to win but also knows it now has the kind of back who can nail down victories on days like this, when there is more danger in the air than the public might think.
"I didn't come here to rot away and take Ls," Dillon said. "I want to be part of something that is a winning tradition and this is it." For the past two games he has been part of it, and yesterday he was more than that. He was one of the chief reasons the Patriots' 17th consecutive win is now safely history.
© Copyright 2004 Globe Newspaper Company.