Dillon offers a jewel

8-31-01, 2:30 a.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

On the day after Pro Bowl running back Corey Dillon gave his offensive linemen diamond-studded watches, they gave him a gem of a hole.

Dillon's vintage 87-yard touchdown run on the second play of Thursday's 23-17 loss to the Colts was the brightest moment in a night that kept getting darker.

That gave him two carries for 92 yards, a pat on the back from head coach Dick LeBeau, a seat on the bench until the Sept. 9 regular-season opener against the Patriots, and a sign of awe from quarterback Jon Kitna.

Kitna suggested that if he can take advantage of defenses, Dillon can gain 2,000 yards. Dillon, who began a year-long feud with the media a few years back in training camp when he jokingly predicted he would gain 2,500 yards and it came out as serious, wouldn't go near that statement with a $3,000 Locman watch.

"Don't hold me to that," said Dillon, who think he's ready despite carrying just nine times in the preseason.

"It doesn't matter if it's enough or not. When they tell

you to sit down after two carries, you sit down. It's no big deal to me."

The run showed why his best friend on the team, linebacker Adrian Ross, thinks Dillon is different than most backs in the NFL.

"Power and speed," Ross said. " He has a punishing mentality. 'You get to tackle me on this play, but take this with you and just hope to get me down.' The old school type. 'Then let me open _ like that run there_ I'm going to leave you."

Dillon left strong safety Cory Bird as he jetted down the right sideline. That was after shaking off free safety Idrees Bashir. Which meant the play was run the way it's supposed to be run:

Man on a man. Dillon makes the move on the safety. Then Dillon outruns everybody else.

"What did Big Willie do? What Big Willie do?" asked 340-pound right tackle Willie Anderson as he walked to the shower past Dillon holding forth with the press.

"Big Willie did an excellent job sealing off the perimeter," Dillon said on cue. "I cut off of Willie and made it happen. (Fullback) Lorenzo (Neal) made a good block and it was the defender and me and I made him miss and I took it to the house."

Once upon a time, the Bengals didn't think Dillon could outrun safeties. Then he ran by a few last year (when he led the NFL with 12 runs of 20 yards or more) on the way to breaking Walter Payton's single-game rushing record with 278 yards and Jams Brooks' franchise season record with 1,435 to earn the Bengals richest contract ever back in May.

"I know what I can do," Dillon said. "It's somebody else always telling you what you can't do."

Ross, one the NFL's top video football players who spends hours playing with Dillon, loves what the John Madden game does for him.

The cyber Madden says something like, "Everytime you look at Dillon, he sets a record." And the cyber crowd chants, "Corey, Corey."

So Ross knows his subject. The five-year, $26.1 million deal has stoked the fire instead of doused it. His name goes in and out of houses all over the country the time. He just wants his name to stay there and become a household name is how Ross sees it.

"I can see it in him now," Ross said. "How hard he works. He's just ready to move up in the category of running backs. . .He wants to be known as the best running back in the league."

He's walking tall in the locker room right now after handing out the watches Wednesday to the linemen who helped him set the records last year. Backup left tackle John Jackson is used to being around another generous and prolific running back, such as Jerome Bettis in Pittsburgh.

For a few years, Bettis gave his linemen a choice: two first class tickets to Hawaii, three suits or a Rolex. Jackson looked at Dillon's Rolex-like Locman and marveled at the diamonds.

"This is really nice, a great gesture," Jackson said. "It shows he appreciates you and that says so much. I know the guys really appreciate it."

It goes a long way. A lot longer than 87 yards.

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