Bengals emphasize run

10-4-01, 1:10 a.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

After just 33 carries in the past two games, Pro Bowl running back Corey Dillon smiled Wednesday and said, "I'm like one of those old luxury cars. You got to jump start me, but hell, when I get going, I'm running."

Asked what year the model is, Dillon, a car collector who turns 27 in three weeks, responded, "I'm a '74. I've been in the garage for awhile. I'm just waiting for the owners to drive me."

Dillon should be ready to roll out for a Sunday drive in Pittsburgh as the Bengals began their work week trying to re-discover their punishing running game with him as the point man. Offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski has reminded his players the past few days they must re-commit to the running game and predicts, "If we can run 35 times in this game against Pittsburgh, we will probably win the game."

The numbers suggest the Bengals plan to pound Dillon. In six of his seven starts against the Steelers, he has averaged at least four yards per carry. In the 16 games under head coach Dick LeBeau he has had only one stretch of three straight games with less than 20 carries and that was the final three games of last season.

But the Steelers have numbers, too, with the fourth

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best defense in the NFL against the rush. Throw in that Bratkowski thinks it's a unit that has improved its speed during the offseason and that its quickness doesn't make them as vulnerable against the run as other 3-4 defenses.

"If you're ever going to get that mentality, this is probably the team to get that against," said tight end Tony McGee of the smashmouth Steelers. "They line up for the run. They say, 'Bring it on,' and we'll say, 'Here we come.' That's the kind of game this has always been."

The Bengals haven't exactly been awful running the ball. They are 11th in the league in rushing and only five running backs in the NFL have more than Dillon's 207 yards after three games.

But the Bengals are used to grinding it out instead of flitting around as evidenced by their 14-5 record when Dillon gets at least 22 carries and their No. 2 ranking in NFL rushing the last two seasons.

(A sign that all is not well is he has carried just nine times in the fourth quarter for minus-3 yards this season.)

"I get to 15, 16 carries and I'm just getting loose in most games," Dillon said. "Don't get me wrong. If I get a chance early, I'm going to take it. But my thing is wearing them down, settling in, learning what they're doing, and trying to make something happen late in the game."

Or, as right tackle Willie Anderson said, "He's a rhythm back. A rhythm runner. . .If we make turnovers and get down 14 (as in Sunday's 28-14 loss to San Diego), now that takes him out of the game. . .He can't get going on that. I've seen him get 15 carries and he's just warming up. That's when he starts to get going. . .If we take him out of the game, that's taking away one of our main strengths and that's run blocking."

To Dillon's credit, he hasn't been in Bratkowski's ear about more carries. Not like how Ricky Watters could get in Bratkowski's ear in Seattle.

Probably because Dillon understands that the turnovers in San Diego limited his chances. Bratkowski figures if quarterback Jon Kitna and fullback Lorenzo Neal hadn't botched a handoff to Dillon on the game's first drive, Dillon probably would have had about four more carries in that drive alone. And if the game was close in the second half, Bratkowski figures maybe eight more carries.

"We're going to have a good year running the ball," Bratkowski said. "We expect a lot of things. We've faced some pretty good defenses and that makes you do things a little differently. It won't be that way every week. It will play itself out."

But it will be more of the same this week after playing the two best teams in the league against the run over the past few seasons in Baltimore and San Diego.

"Just because it's a 3-4 doesn't mean you automatically run the heck out of the ball," Bratkowski said. "You can make a general statement about the 3-4 being easier to run on. But I don't necessarily think you can make that statement about Pittsburgh's 3-4. They believe in the scheme. They get the players to do it, they believe it, and they do stop the run. Does that mean we'll run the ball without success? No. We think we can run the ball on them. We think we can run the ball on anybody."

Usually, teams find they can gouge a 3-4 defense with the run because they replace a lineman with a lighter linebacker. Plus, the strong safety is so active at the line of scrimmage that if he can't make a play, there's a chance for a long run because no one else is back.

But Bratkowski, the Steelers receivers coach the last two seasons, doesn't see those advantages against this defense.

"Good 3-4 teams overcome that with quickness, which is what Pittsburgh does," Bratkowski said. "Their team speed is better than anytime when I was there. . .They jump around things and outquick you. They get to spots before linemen can get on them."

Dillon shrugs about it all. He says he can't be worried or concerned about the numbers of carries. He says it will come in all due time. He says he's just focusing on doing anything positive against an amazing run of run defenses.

"Let me tell you what," Dillon said. "If we hadn't missed a game, from the second week on we were playing the four toughest (Tennessee, Baltimore, San Diego, Pittsburgh) defenses in the NFL today.

" I know they're going to try knock me out," Dillon said. "Whether I let them do that, that's another question."

But at the moment, it's the question that's going to decide which way this season goes on Sunday.

Running back to two games over .500? Or running in place at .500?

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