12-02-01, 11:45 p.m.
BY GEOFF HOBSON
Corey Dillon took the blame for Sunday's 16-13 overtime loss to Tampa Bay. Dillon, the Bengals Pro Bowl running back, said, "Put it on my tab."
Adrian Ross wonders who will get stuck paying the bill.
" I'm going to hate to see what happens to Jacksonville next week," said Ross, one of Dillon's closest friends on the team. "Because he's going to come out running. I know that. He's kind of down right now. He knows he had some chances to run the ball and he just wants to make sure he does something positive with all his chances and it was just the way the game played out."
The game played out, as Dillon called it when he saw Tampa Bay Pro Bowl safety John Lynch looming in the hole, "like a bad dream." Only moments before, with eight seconds left in regulation, Dillon had tied the game on a vintage blood-and-guts run in taking a six-yard pass over the middle from quarterback Jon Kitna and bulling through 440 pounds of safety Dexter Jackson and linebacker Jamie Duncan for the tying touchdown.
"Pure will and just blessed I guess," Dillon said.
But moments later in overtime, there was Lynch reaching around Dillon and poking the ball away from him and landing on his own forced fumble at the Bengals 3 that led to Martin Gramatica's ensuing 21-yard field goal just 5:06 into the extra period.
"It was a good damn poke," said Dillon, whose 1,300th career carry was quite unlucky. "It came out. I don't know what it was. Poke. Punched. Tapped. He did what he had to do.
"Until we get back to work Wednesday, blame me," Dillon said. "Crucial play. I turned it over. I'm devastated. I wish I could do it over, but I can't."
His teammates rallied to their meal ticket after his best game in the four-game losing streak with 79 yards on 23 carries against the NFL's 12th-best rush defense. It also broke a four-game winning streak dating back to last year in which the Bengals have won when Dillon carries at least 22 times.
Reporters saw Lynch walk to the sidelines to commiserate with Dillon as Bengals backup running back Brandon Bennett rubbed Dillon's head.
"He was sick,'' Bennett said. ``He always wants to be the strong link, not the weak link. He's the one that sparks us. It hurt him to do bad.''
Asked if he felt badly for Dillon, Kitna said, "I don't feel too bad for him because he's the man. Let's not forget, if Corey doesn't make up his mind to score that touchdown, we lose the game because there's no way we're going line up and get the ball in in that amount of time. So he's what got us to that point."
Dillon wasn't the only back who felt sick. Fullback Nick Williams, playing in his first game since May's reconstructive knee surgery, said, "I feel just sick," after the fumble. With fullback Lorenzo Neal on the field and Williams in his new role as H-Back, Williams left Lynch unblocked and went after blitzing cornerback Ronde Barber. He wanted to wait until Monday's films to see if it was his mistake, but he took at least part of the blame.
Neal, another one of Dillon's confidants, said his friend is "ticked off. He's upset. He was feeling it. He was ready to take over the game. The guy is a warrior and he was having a great game.
"Unfortunately, they came with with a corner blitz and Nick had to go get the corner and the safety was free," Neal said. "(Lynch) kind of got him before he got going. CD is devastated about it, but he'll keep running hard."
As big of a play as the fumble, there might have been an even bigger play way back on the game's first drive. Dillon had bulled up the middle, mainly behind Neal and Williams, for 20 yards on eight carries, to help the Bengals get inside the Tampa Bay 1 on second down.
The Bengals tried a toss sweep to Dillon to the left and he lost four yards when Jackson muscled him out of bounds at the Tampa Bay 5. An incomplete pass on the next play forced the Bengals to settle for Neil Rackers' 23-yard field goal.
For years, Dillon has said he's not comfortable running a toss (remember two weeks ago when the Titans blew up a fourth-and-one?), but he wouldn't say it Sunday.
In fact, center Rich Braham and right tackle Willie Anderson said Kitna made the right call at the line of scrimmage and that the scenario had been worked on during
the week. And some observers thought Neal made a good enough kick-out block on Jackson that Dillon could have walked in if he chose to cut inside instead of stringing it outside.
"I'll run the play. It's not (about) what I'm comfortable with," said Dillon, who kept bringing it back to the fumble. "It's not a factor here. . .I had the ball in my hands (in overtime) and I didn't get it done."
Braham said the Bengals went to the line with two plays and Kitna opted for the toss.
"At times, they like to gap their guys down in. Put everybody inside," Braham said, "and they happened to do just that, so obviously running outside is better than running up the middle."
Anderson said, "It was there," and Kitna observed, "They gave us a look where we had seen teams try to run against them up the middle and you can't do it. They had six guys hunkered down from our right tackle to left tackle, plus two linebackers sitting right behind them going downhill . We've got five guys between our tackles. So we know trying to get to the edge is the best thing. Give them credit. They held up the edge. That was the play that was made."
But for Dillon, it kept coming back to the fumble, something he doesn't do very often. He began the day with a fumble that he got back on his first carry. He couldn't get back the last one, his 14th fumble of his career on 1,434 touches and his fourth one this season on 251 touches. Last year, he had four on 333 touches.
Last season, he had fewer fumbles than his AFC Pro Bowl counterparts, Edgerrin James (eight) and Eddie George (five). Of the top four NFC rushers, Stephen Davis had four fumbles last season and Emmitt Smith and Duce Staley each had five. Marshall Faulk had just two.
It happens, Dillon said.
As Dillon dressed, Bengals head coach Dick LeBeau came over to his locker, hugged him, and put his arm around him.
"He was doing what a good coach does when a player feels depressed," Dillon said. "I'll win more games than I lose. I promise you."
But it didn't make him feel any better. Ross would try.
"I'll run up there later tonight," Ross said of a visit to Dillon's home, "and check him out."