BY GEOFF HOBSON
Bengals running back Corey Dillon sits down for an interview with ESPN's Sal Paolantonio for an "Up Close," segment today on the network at 5:30 p.m.
Dillon is the third-leading rusher in the AFC with 761 yards on 158 carries, trailing the Colts Edgerrin James with 989 yards on 217 carries and the Titans' Eddie George with 837 on 222.
WARRICK TO RETURN? The next time we see Peter Warrick, he may very well be returning a punt when the Bengals play in Dallas this Sunday.
Sure, special teams coach Al Roberts has said that before and the Bengals' rookie receiver hasn't dropped back since returning his lone punt for 10 yards way back on Oct. 15 in Pittsburgh.
But Roberts said Monday he's seriously thinking of letting Warrick take the Cowboys' first punt. Roberts said game conditions have prevented him from turning to Warrick, so he figures before the game gets very far he'll give Warrick a shot.
"Just to get him active, get him into the flow, get him into the game," Roberts said. "There just hasn't been a right time lately. Believe me, I go get him. I'm thinking of him."
Roberts considers a variety of factors when he looks for Warrick on the foes' fourth down.
For instance, when he thought of turning to Warrick last Sunday, the Ravens were punting too close to the end zone for any kind of return. Plus, Roberts didn't want to disrupt Craig Yeast's rhythm during a solid day his 27-yarder set up the Bengals' only touchdown.
In the two previous games, which were Bengals victories, they were getting enough out of Warrick because he was either blocking for running back Corey Dillon or running himself.
"You've got to remember, he's been throwing his body around out there blocking," Roberts said. "I'll go get him, and he just might have gone in motion blocking the strong safety. Or, he might have come off the field after running a long route and I'm looking to get him freshened up.
"Or maybe (the offense) has got him and they're going over what they want him to do on the next series and I have to send in Yeast," Roberts said. "We're not mad at Yeast, are we? He's doing a good job."
So the way Roberts figured it Monday, before too many of those factors surface in game, he just might very well let Warrick take the first punt.
SMITH DEFENDED:** Management isn't ready to give up on Akili Smith. Although Bengals President Mike Brown is very concerned about the passing game, he thinks his quarterback and his 2-7 team are capable of finishing strong.
"We run the ball effectively," Brown said. "We're up and down defensively. I'd like to see us be in the top half of the league on defense and get up to where we're throwing the ball for over 200 yards a game. That isn't asking too much. If we can do that, keep the running game going and play a little sounder defensively with less mental errors, we can compete with most teams in this league. I think we can win a good number of games (in the last seven weeks)."
Brown says Smith's 15-for-27 passing on Sunday for 137 yards is a step in the right direction because he was over 50 percent for the first time in a month. He also said a quarterback needs more than a year to be evaluated.
"It's too early to judge Akili," Brown said. "He's throwing more accurately than he was earlier and sometimes it really isn't his fault. We've had success in the passing game here before and if you look at it, Kenny (Anderson) and Boomer (Esiason) didn't come on until their second year."
But Brown is horrified by the passing production.
"We can't win passing for 113 yards per game. That's off the charts he said. "It's a combination of things. The quarterback is in a learning process. The receivers are showing their inexperience. We think we can do better there and I know Akili thought it would come quicker. He knows it more than anyone. I think it will come. I think he's picking up what we do."
Coach Dick LeBeau continued to support Smith Monday.
"I see him do things that make me believe he's going to be a good quarterback," LeBeau said. "I still see his youth at times. We're working on that daily. . .You hear a lot about the timing and rhythm of the passing game and that's definitely part of success of throwing the ball. I think the longer people have been together, the more likely they are to have that. . .The longer people work together, the more they acquire that feel."
MIGHTY MO:** Former Michigan head coach Gary Moeller, a leading candidate for the Bengals job if LeBeau isn't rehired, is suddenly out of the mix. Moeller got a three-year contract to coach the Lions Monday in the wake of Bobby Ross' resignation.
Brown isn't saying anything about his coaching job, but it will be recalled he hired Moeller as tight ends coach in 1995. That was soon after Moeller lost the Michigan job following a public debacle in a restaurant.
"He's a guy I respect," said Brown after writing Moeller a note of congratulations. "He's straight forward. He's good with people. I think he will be an effective coach for the Lions. He's stepping into it at a difficult time, but I think he'll respond and do it well."