Dillon puts chips on Bengals to win AFC North

5-21-03, 10:20 p.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

In the minutes after last season's loss in the finale at Buffalo, Bengals running back Corey Dillon shared a joke with fullback Lorenzo Neal that went along the lines that neither wanted to start another season at Georgetown College.

Well, Neal isn't coming back because he's in San Diego. But Dillon isn't laughing in the Marvin Lewis era and on Wednesday he put his money and his house on the Bengals winning the AFC North.

"I'm not saying we're the favorites or anything like that, I just like what we're doing," said Dillon after practice. "I'll put all our chips on us. I'm going to ride with us. If I was a betting man, I'd go with us."

Dillon knows that if he uttered such words in any other year, he would be committed, or at the very least, "be on ESPN as the newest joke." But Dillon thinks Lewis has instilled the right ingredients.

"Once you break it down by personnel, player against player across the board, we match up with anybody," Dillon said. "We just needed a little something extra and Marvin brought that."

Dillon, Lewis look to each other

5-22-03, 5:55 a.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

Corey Dillon is the first to tell you that a scant five months ago, he was one of the many Bengals wondering if the best thing was "a one-way," or "getting on something smoking," out of town.

But after Wednesday's practice, he was happy enough to hold court as only Dillon can in one of those rare half-hour sessions with the print media that was relaxed and expansive:

Marvin Lewis has the Bengals purring in such a fashion during camps that Dillon is "ticked off," it hasn't been this way for his previous six seasons in Cincinnati.

"Now things are in order," Dillon said. "I believe this until I leave this earth. You are a reflection of what your coach is. If your coach is soft, your team is going to be soft. If the coach is disciplined, up-tempo, positive, that's the way the team is going to be and that's how he is. I've looked at basketball, baseball, football and that's how it is. Marvin is a strong guy. His personality is great, he's got a great work ethic. He's our guy. Hopefully, we can be a reflection of what he is."

If Dillon does this season what he's done in his six seasons in the NFL, which is gain at least 1,129 yards, he'll break into the NFL's list of top 20 rushers with 8,649 career yards. Yet, last season he indicated a few times he wasn't always pleased with the lack of what he saw as "north-south," runs. But an early look at the revised playbook has him smiling about the addition of "some of the old school zone plays I've been running since the University of Washington," that take advantage of his ability to get through the middle quickly and powerfully.

"We've just revised some stuff. It's nothing new for me," Dillon said. "We've just narrowed down some runs. They're not that wide. There isn't as much angle blocking, although we've still got a lot of plays with that. We're just firing off the ball and getting up field. We've taken our strengths and we're running with it."

Dillon sneers at the pre-draft rumblings that the Bengals were looking to send him a message by drafting a back with young, fresh legs.

"He'd be getting a lot of splinters," Dillon said. "I really don't care. They could bring in Marshall Faulk. Go for it, I'm not scared of (him). Great guy. I like how he does it. If I had to choose a running back in the NFL, I'd choose Marshall Faulk. But we would go after it."

Lewis and Dillon are forming Paul Brown Stadium's flagship mutual admiration society. Lewis, the hard-core Pittsburgh guy who wants to turn games into a trench of fourth-quarter attrition, loves how Dillon punishes defenses mentally and physically.

Back in 2001, when Dillon broke the Ravens' streak of 50 straight games without allowing a 100-yard rusher, Lewis, their defensive coordinator, told Dillon shortly after he was glad it was done by a legitimately premier back in the league.

But the year before that, Lewis also saw Dillon walk off the field after getting dumped late in a 37-0 loss in Baltimore. And he has told Dillon he needs to better channel that type of anger.

"We've talked about that frustration and how you have to find a way to temper that," Lewis said. "Our best players have to find a way to deal with it

so they don't flinch. So it's not perceived as flinching by their teammates. People are counting on him around here. He's the man. You talk to anybody in this building and they'll tell you to a man how everybody feeds off his energy because of how hard he plays and how he wants to punish the defense when he runs. Corey Dillon is one of the reasons you want to come here.

"I can't walk off the field in disgust," Lewis said. "These are my guys. You can't do that. These are our guys. We're all in this together. We're not going to score touchdowns on every run or always make a four-yard loss on defense. You understand the frustration. But we can't flinch. Never show your enemy you flinch."

Lewis says he's talked to Dillon about such things and it sounds like Dillon is happy to have the feedback. Dillon admits he has scars that still have to heal from a six-year record of 26-70. He'll probably have a longer candle now when it comes to frustration, given that he sounds relieved Lewis has shut down the circus atmosphere that seemed to follow the Bengals from year to year like the Big Top looking for the next town.

"It always seemed to be something," Dillon said.

He seems to have certainly bought into what Lewis is selling, and if he thought the defensive-minded Dick LeBeau gave him a lot of work, he may have seen nothing yet from Lewis.

"This team can't have that woe-is-me mentality when things don't go exactly right," Lewis said. "We want that lunch-pail, hard-hat mentality. We want to keep sawing wood no matter what. Keep coming at you and wearing you down in the fourth quarter. And we're going to do it with Corey Dillon. He's the kind of guy you win doing that. That's his hole card. I want him thinking about being on the field in the fourth quarter when we're winning games."

On Dec. 23, 2001 in Baltimore, Dillon went for 127 yards on 24 carries to break the Ravens' streak, but Baltimore won, 16-0, as if to underscore the help Dillon needs. He thinks one of the places he can get it from is a Lewis type of defense.

""It was hard for anyone to get 100 yards on them," Dillon said. "And I can see why. They played hard and with so much discipline."

Dillon turns 29 on Oct. 24, two days after celebrating the third anniversary of his record 278-yard against the Broncos. And the numbers should keep piling up.

According to the Pro Football Hall of Fame, Dillon leads the players active in 2002 who rank closest to the top 20 all-time rushers at No. 31 with 7,520 yards. Garrison Hearst is next at 7,117. Terrell Davis at 7,607 was on injured reserve last year. If he hits 1,095 yards before Davis and Hearst, Dillon passes No. 20 Terry Allen with 8,615 yards.

And, if Dillon finishes out the last three years of his contract the way he has played the last three years, he'll be in the top 10. That means he would average 1,354 yards and have 11,581 for his career at the end of the 2005 season, putting him No. 10 all-time, behind Thurman Thomas and ahead of Jerome Bettis.

But the list is moving. Bettis (No. 10) is one of five active backs in the top 20 in a group headed by all-time rusher Emmitt Smith and includes Faulk at 14, Curtis Martin at 15 and Eddie George at 19.

Dillon keeps insisting the numbers are nothing in the face of his final and most coveted goal, which is getting to the Super Bowl. But he does smile when he thinks how tough it will be to get yards against a Denver team in the Sept. 7 opener that's playing him for the first time since the 278.

"I'm sure they're going to go after me a little bit," Dillon said. "I'm sure the coach is going to enlighten them on what transpired a couple of years ago. They're probably sleeping with that game film."

He's added some bulk around the shoulders and neck this offseason and says he's at 230, but he figures he'll be playing at about 227 pounds, as he did last season. But Dillon isn't loading up for any vendettas.

They play at San Diego and Buffalo this year, and his Pro Bowl blocking fullback, Lorenzo Neal, is with the Chargers, and one of his oldest teammates, linebacker Takeo Spikes, is with the Bills.

"I'm not worried about Spikes, dude," Dillon said. "Who (hasn't been) aiming for me? People have been aiming at me for six years. . .Spikes is a hell of a player. He'll be geeked up to play his old team."

Dillon calls Neal, "his buddy," but he thinks the Bengals have brought in capable people to fill his shoes. And he'd like to remind people he rushed for nearly 5,000 yards in the first four seasons of his career without Neal.

"I was getting yards before he got here. I'm going to get them after," Dillon said. "We're not dead because Lorenzo left. Big deal. We've got some guys who can get it done. Let's go play football. I'm not too much worried about it."

Which is a long way from five months ago. About 7,520 yards.

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