Dillon grinding for answers

11-28-01, 6:30 p.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

A month ago today, only Curtis Martin and Edgerrin James had rushed for more yards in the NFL than Corey Dillon and his 625 yards.

Three games, 31 days, and 159 yards later, eight running backs have more yards than Dillon. Including old friends Priest Holmes, a Bengal killer long before this, and Shaun Alexander, the Northern Kentucky product from across the river and Paul Brown Stadium.

But what galls Dillon even more is the Bengals haven't won since Oct. 28 in Detroit, when he ran the Bengals into the bye week with 184 yards.

"I'm mad. Words can't describe how I feel," Dillon said after Wednesday's mood-matching raw and rainy practice. "It's a matter of execution. Not only me, but everybody else."

He knows the As-Dillon-Goes-So-Go-The-Bengal stat of how they are 16-5 when he carries 22 or more times. But he knows that means nothing when you're only averaging two yards a carry in the second half since Oct. 28 with 33 yards on 16 carries.

Take last week in Cleveland. He got his 20 carries, which had meant a Bengals' win in four straight games dating back to last season. But 20 carries aren't so magical when they net 63 yards. Not to mention just seven yards on six carries in the second half.

He is at 3.8 yards per carry. He can't ever remember not averaging four yards per carry. At Franklin High School. Garden City JC. Washington. The NFL, where he came into this season at 4.6 for his career.

He has gone three straight games without a 100-yard day. It has only stretched to four once during the season since he got the starting job midway through 1997. That was during a six-game drought in 1998.

"Yeah, 20 carries for what?" Dillon asked. "It doesn't mean anything if you don't get anything. If I had 30 carries, it wouldn't have mattered. You have to be effective doing it. What is 30 to 35 carries if you're not executing? I'm not pointing the finger at any group. I'm not going to do that. I put myself in the category that we all have to execute better."

Maybe most disturbing is how defenses are adjusting to Dillon in the second half. In eight of the 10 games, Dillon has rushed for 25 yards or less

in the second half. In two of the last three games, he was in single digits.

"We come out and get too many penalties and turnovers," Dillon said. "It's hard to overcome. It's hard for anybody to run with that."

Dillon can't figure it out. The Bengals have played four of the NFL's top five rushing defenses. But the pass offense isn't dead last in the NFL like it was last year (the Bengals are 23rd this week) and still he's about 200 yards behind last year's pace of a career-best 1,435 yards. Dillon knows this offense is trying to make a transition to find more balance.

"I'm just trying to get better," Dillon said. "Until we make up our mind what we're going to be and how we're going to get it done, we're going to have problems. Right now, we need to get it right. If not, it's going to be a long season."

Dillon sees Pro Bowl tackle Warren Sapp coming to town with Tampa Bay's 12th-ranked rush defense and he knows the drill.

"They're good. They're fast," Dillon said. "We better be executing or it's going to be a long, damn Sunday. We're going to have to have a little smoke and fire. They get after it. We can't be lackadaisical."

Dillon admits the failings of the running game are "driving me crazy." Everyone knows defenses are crowding the box with eight and nine players daring the Bengals to throw. Are they all accounted for and the blocking is poor? Or are they unblocked because there are so many? Players and coaches are trying to get a handle on the question. So is Dillon.

"I don't know," Dillon said. "We know what they are going to do. It's a point of just going out there and executing. When you execute, that eliminates a lot of other stuff."

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