Dillon turns century

12-24-01, 4:35 a.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

BALTIMORE _ In Edgar Allan Poe's old stomping grounds Sunday, Bengals fullback Lorenzo Neal helped some poetry in motion.

"That No. 28," said Neal of Corey Dillon, his running back. "When he finds that seam, when he gets past that line, he's a poet. He's a magician out there. Let me tell you, Corey Dillon is awesome. He can run through you, around you and away from you."

Dillon and Neal, who are the Bengals' best hopes for the Pro Bowl along with linebackers Takeo Spikes and Brian Simmons, made some streaks disappear after the Bengals' 16-0 loss here in their personal wasteland known as PSINet Stadium. The biggest skein ended when Dillon rushed for 127 yards on 24 carries, the first time Baltimore's defense had allowed a 100-yard rusher in 50 games, three years and three days.

Dillon also broke his own career-high streak of six games under 100 yards when he followed Neal for 5.3 yards per carry against a defense that leads the NFL by yielding just 3.2 yards per rush.

But Dillon was just as miserable Sunday as he was after last Sunday's loss in New York, when he became just the sixth back ever to rush for 1,000 yards in his first five seasons.

"How can you be satisfied with some stats if you didn't win? That's the bottom line," Dillon said.

His biggest play might have some on the sidelines when he turned peacemaker in the final minutes and stepped in between a heated Jon Kitna and Chad Johnson.

"I'm frustrated, management's frustrated, coaches are frustrated," Dillon said. "We've got to find a way to get rid of this frustration."

Dillon did his part. Yes, the Ravens were without tackle Tony Siragusa and end Michael McCrary. Plus, their other huge tackle, Sam

Adams didn't play much in the second half.

But the Bengals also had to deal with problems. Down to their fifth and sixth tight ends already, they lost No. 6 in the first half when H-Back Nick Williams left with a calf bruise. So 350-pound tackle Jamain Stephens played a lot of tight end in double tight end sets with first-year player Kirk McMullen and Neal spent a lot of time banging into Ravens middle linebacker Ray Lewis.

"This is the most challenging year I've been through running the ball because we've been forced to use very unconventional personnel groups with the injuries," said offensive line coach Paul Alexander.

Lewis had two interceptions and a team-high 11 tackles, according to the press box stats. But after stoning Dillon on two straight plays late in the first half in which he was unblocked, Lewis didn't wreak as much havoc in the running game as he usually does.

"He's a great player. You have to accommodate him," Neal said. "One time they called the right blitz on the right play and the other time I went the wrong way. But I like my matchup. I can think of 41 reasons of why that matchup brings out the best in me."

They met on the field after the game, Neal wearing No. 41 and Lewis the No. 52 of the NFL's reigning MVP and Super Bowl MVP. Lewis told him that Neal got him a few times.

"I got him on the (isolation play) a few times," Neal said. "That's what he told me. He knows what happened."

What happened is that Alexander said they had to "draw plays in the dirt," at halftime after Williams got hurt. But it worked for a running game that has fallen 20 places this year in the NFL rankings after last year's No. 2 finish. After failing to get 100 yards in five straight games, the Bengals have now gone over 100 yards in back-to-back games.

"We're trying to fit our new players into what they do best," Alexander said.

On Sunday, they ran Neal at Lewis on the isolation play more than a few times and more than teams usually run at Lewis. That way, they knew they had a hat on him.

They also ran several draw plays that burned the blitzing linebackers. That's what appeared to happen when Dillon ran a draw for 19 yards in the Bengals' last, best drive in the fourth quarter to go over 100.

"A lot of it was attitude," said Neal, who told people in the locker room before the game that Dillon would get 100. "I told Corey this week he was going to get it. That's how we blocked. We stayed on the blocks and got it done."

But in the end, Dillon most likely agreed with Ravens linebacker Peter Boulware.

"We got a shutout and a win. Dillon is a great back, but we don't play for streaks around here, we play for wins," Boulware said.

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