Clif-hanger at running back

8-26-01, 4:40 a.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

This is how the NFL works.

Bengals backup fullback Clif Groce wiped out Bills linebacker Keith Newman to open the way for backup running back Brandon Bennett's 76-yard touchdown run Saturday night that just might mean Bennett makes the team instead of Groce.

"What do they call that? Dark satire?" Groce asked. "That's the story of my

career. How many guys have blocked for more yards in the NFL in their career? I would have to be me I think."

On Saturday, Groce blocked for a 100-yard rusher, which is exactly how many Bennett had on six carries. He has helped Corey Dillon go to two Pro Bowls with more than 2,600 yards the previous two seasons.

With the Bengals usually keeping five running backs and Dillon, Curtis Keaton, Rudi Johnson and fullback Lorenzo Neal obvious locks, that leaves Bennett and Groce dueling

"That would be tough if one of us (gets cut), but that's the bigs," Bennett said. "We both know that."

Newman slanted down and Groce turned him to the outside on the draw play up the middle. Bennett took it inside Groce, ran over strong safety Henry Jones, and ran away from free safety Keione Carpenter for the longest run of his seven-year career. The reliable blue-collar special teams guy gave it a little Hollywood with some exaggerated long steps the last 10 yards.

Bennett, 28, is everyone's sentimental favorite. From 1995-99, he was waived out of four training camps and missed a season with a torn ACL in his knee.

But he just keeps producing whenever he gets a shot. Last year, Bennett spelled Dillon enough to score key touchdowns in the wins over Denver and Arizona on the way to 324 yards on 90 carries.

"We've got a ton of good running backs," Bennett said. "They may do the same thing next week. I don't even think about (getting cut). If I do that it will take away from how I play. . .If things work out, good. If not, other teams, they'll see me and maybe I'll get on somewhere else."

It would be hard to see the Bengals cutting Bennett, Keaton, or Johnson. After Keaton went for 25 yards on five carries and Johnson 13 on five carries Saturday, the trio has combined for 429 yards on 70 carries, a 6.1 yards per carry average in the preseason.

Michael Basnight, who came in averaging 4.3 yards per carry himself, looks to be the odd man out. He didn't get a carry against the Bills.

PLUMMER OUT: Wide receiver Chad Plummer became a candidate for injured reserve Sunday when a MRI revealed he had torn cartilage in his right hip and is out at least six weeks after a play in Saturday's second half. Plummer, a University of Cincinnati product, has had an uphill climb trying to hook on with his third team since leaving Clifton after the 1998 season as the MVP of the Humanitarian Bowl.

CD SHARP: Dillon looked sharp on his first seven carries of the year for 34 yards while playing the entire first quarter. He popped a 24-yarder over right tackle, but his most impressive run was for just four yards and a first down in the game's opening drive.

The middle was clogged on the 3rd-and-3 draw, but

Dillon veered to the left sideline and beat the Bills to the first-down stick.

"I want to see the films on that Monday," Dillon said. "I think I was a bit antsy. I probably could have stayed with it longer, but I may have bounced it too early.

"I'm just trying to get the cobwebs out," Dillon said. "You've got to get used to the real bullets flying. I'll probably get more action in the next game."

SAFETY ALERT: There is no safety in numbers. With the Bengals on their own 4 on their second series, quarterback Scott Mitchell got sacked in the end zone by right end Erik Flowers for a safety. Coach Dick LeBeau

said it was he who called for

the pass on first down and, "in retrospect I wish I had said, 'run.'"

LeBeau called it a "modified blitz," with five men rushing with Flowers slanting inside. Left tackle Richmond Webb said he didn't take enough steps inside and that Flowers, " got on my edge and I didn't push him far enough off."

'D' SALUTED: No one had a bad word to say about the Bengals' defense, which knew it had to take advantage of Buffalo's inexperienced offensive line.

The Bengals supplied six sacks from seven players (linebackers Takeo Spikes and Brian Simmons shared one while end Vaughn Booker, tackle Oliver Gibson

and safeties Cory Hall, JoJuan Armour and Tremain Mack had the others) and three tipped passes from the front seven (Simmons, Booker, lineman Bernard Whittington) had the Bills buffaloed much of the night.

All of this with the secondary creamed. Mack had a stinger in his shoulder and is probable for Thursday's game, but he was in and out and he was only starting at strong safety because Chris Carter has a hamstring pull. Cory Hall got ejected after a second-quarter altercation with Bills linebacker Fred Jones.

Carter ended up in the game and looked to struggle in coverage on the 13-yard touchdown pass to tight end Josh Whitman and the ensuing two-point flip on the same play to tight end Dan O'Leary. Backup strong safety Darryl Williams (ankle), plus cornerbacks Artrell Hawkins (tonsils) and Mark Roman (chest) were also out.

Still, the defense allowed just 274 yards, the Bills converted only 31 percent of their third downs and No. 1 quarterback Rob Johnson had the same numbers as Scott Mitchell (8-for-19), but fewer yards (97-81).

But Johnson didn't turn it over as the Bengals couldn't recover from the minus-3 differential.

INJURY UPDATE:Rookie WR T.J. Houshmandzadeh (foot) didn't play Saturday and is questionable for Thursday, as is QB Akili Smith (shoulder). DE Kevin Henry (hamstring) is probable after sitting it out Saturday. . .Tremain Mack (shoulder)
had a stinger on his shoulder in the game's first five minutes, but came back in the game and is probable. . .So is LG Matt O'Dwyer (rib strain).

The only questionable players for Thursday from Saturday's game are OLB Adrian Ross (ankle) and rookie linebacker Rashad Harris (shoulder).

SCOTT DROP, RACKERS MISS: The Bengals lost 10 points when receiver Darnay Scott dropped a touchdown pass on the game's first drive and kicker Neil Rackers pushed a 45-yard field-goal attempt wide right. They also gave

Detroit 10 points on Mitchell's two interceptions.

"I make that catch every day," said Scott, who took a six-yard slant right off his hands from Mitchell. "I just took my eyes off it."

Where is the kicking race? Special teams coach Al Roberts figures the 45-yarder is a layup. He thinks Richie Cunningham's short 50-yarder isn't a gimmie.

GRASSY KNELL: The new Kentucky bluegrass field that was installed at PBS back in May seems to be a hit.

"It's like comparing a Rolls Royce to a Pinto with no wheels," said punter Daniel Pope, who still has fresh memories of last year's temporary Bermuda field that got chewed alive.

Left tackle John Jackson

called the grass, "nice, it's like day and night."

"It's a Big 10 field," said Farmer. "It's a little high, but it's nice. Big difference."

If there was any complaint, it was the grass was a tad too long. The field had been mowed Thursday, but rain combined with the deep roots to make it slightly longer than usual.

LOCKERING ISSUES: The Bengals showed up Saturday after training camp to find that equipment manager Rob Recker had done some locker re-arranging.

Last year, head coach Bruce Coslet alternated the

lockers by offense and defense. This year, Dick LeBeau told Recker to take care of it.

"Most of the players wanted to locker by position," Recker said. "So we had to scramble a bit. I didn't move anybody off a corner locker because that's prime real estate. And it's not set yet because the roster isn't set."

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