Don't forget Bennett

8-21-02, 9:20 p.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

GEORGETOWN, Ky. _ How about this? The Bengals dominate the NFL preseason stats.

They are No. 1 in total defense, No. 2 in total offense, and they have the top two rushers in the NFL in Rudi Johnson (203) and Curtis Keaton (141).

But, hey, don't forget Brandon Bennett.

Bennett, the NFL's prototypical No. 2 running back, barges into this summer-long block party staged by Johnson and Keaton Saturday night when he gets back on the field against the Saints at Paul Brown Stadium.

While Bennett has been out with a sore big toe from his first two carries in the opener, Johnson and Keaton have gone off to the tune of 5.1 yards per carry.

"I feel kind of left out,:" said Bennett here this week. "These boys have got in there and ripped it up, and I haven't done anything yet. So I want to get in there and get the fans standing on their feet a little bit. Make a big run or something."

The conventional wisdom is that the Bengals are only going to keep five running backs and with fullbacks Lorenzo Neal, Nick Williams locks, along with three-time Pro Bowler Corey Dillon, the working assumption is that out of the Bennett-Johnson-Keaton trio, one has to be released.

But as Bennett says, "If they cut one

of us, as good as we're doing, somebody will pick us up."

Bennett is the oldest (29) of the three and has the most tread (a 1999 knee reconstruction), but he also has huge fans on the coaching staff that considers him a complete back and in management, where Bengals President Mike Brown calls him "the perfect back-up player. He's as reliable and as dependable as any player we've had come through here."

He's also no stranger to the havoc Johnson and Keaton are wreaking on the NFL stats. Back in 2000, he was part of the NFL's second-ranked running game, and last year he ripped off 4.6 yards per carry on his 50 carries.

Big plays? In the game Dillon set the NFL rushing record against Denver two years, it was Bennett's second-effort 19-yard touchdown run that put the Bengals ahead for good. Last year in overtime against the Steelers and Dillon sidelined with a jammed pinky, Bennett gained 44 yards on four carries, and ripped off a 36-yarder to put Neil Rackers in position for the winning field goal.

It's not the first time he beat the Steelers. As a rookie in '98, he caught a club-record 119 yards for a running back in a 25-24 win with the injured Dillon sidelined.

He's also an all-out special teamer and great in the locker room. Not exactly the kind of guy you cut.

"I can't worry about that," Bennett said. "It's out of my control. If they cut one of us, as good as we're doing, somebody will pick us up. So you do what you do and play. They've got a decision to make, but it's their decision."

Bennett is one of the true feel-good NFL stories. Before that '98 season, the free agent out of South Carolina had been cut by four teams since 1995, including the Bengals on Aug. 30, 1998. But they re-signed him a week later. Then the next spring in a personal workout, he ripped the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee and was gone for the year. That's why even though the toe is still a little sore . . .

"It's not bad, but I've played with pain before," Bennett said. "My whole thing is to let the team know when I go on the field, something good may happen and probably does happen. I run with rage. I'm mad at the defense. Every time I touch the ball, I want to make something happen. All I know is that No. 28 is going to get 95 percent of whatever has to be done on Opening Day and I'm there to give Corey a breather. However they want to do that is up to them."

When he'll be asked to make something Saturday, he's not so sure. He figures Dillon won't get more than a couple of carries and then he makes his appearance before the kids storm the second half.

"They'll probably play Corey in the first series and depending how the drive goes, keep him in or put me in pretty soon. They may keep him in beyond the first drive, but I'm not counting on it."

But they have been able to count on Bennett. Which makes the decision to go with six backs a lot easier. But can they? Bennett and the others may supply the answer Saturday.

STAT STUFF: The Bengals defense leads the NFL in total defense with 169 yards per game, ahead of Denver's 172. They are third against the pass and second against the run. The Bengals offense leads the NFL in rushing (196 yards per game) and time of possession with an average of just over 37 minutes per game. They are tied for second with the Browns and their average of 375 yards in total offense, trailing only Washington's 444 in three games. . .

They say first-round pick Levi Jones has a mean streak (and it's a compliment), and he got into a brief scuffle with rookie defensive end Joey Evans at Wednesday's practice. . .No word on the quarterback load Saturday, but there's a chance QB Akili Smith could play, or possibly open, the second half with the first-team offensive line. . .

SPIKES CIRCLES SEPT. 8: Defensive captain Takeo Spikes just doesn't see risking his torn pectoral muscle in the last two pre-season games and plans on returning for the regular-season opener against the Chargers. For the first time since suffering the injury 12 days ago when he sacked Bills quarterback Drew Bledsoe, Spikes

on Wednesday participated in practice because it was held without pads. He just made sure when someone headed toward him, he got out of the way.

He also stayed after practice to do some running and spent time with trainer Billy Brooks hitting a tackling dummy so he could practice using his arms to rip and grab.

"I'm trying to get back in it," Spikes said. "Last week I tried to do a little too much and it was sore. The big thing is trying to get the strength back in my arm when it's away from my body. And that's how I hurt it. . . .I think it's just a psychological thing now because I'm afraid to throw my hands up quickly."

Spikes, who has never missed a NFL game because of injury, doesn't plan to start now. But he doesn't think coming back for the Aug. 29 pre-season finale would be the right thing for the injury.

"I think I just have to set my goal for getting back for the opener," Spikes said.

INJURY UPDATE: WR Michael Westbrook met with a hand specialist Wednesday for a checkup on his broken left wrist and trainer Paul Sparling said there has been no change in his condition. Still no word if he'll get his first action in the pre-season finale. . .

MLB Brian Simmons sat out Wednesday's practice with a sore lower back, but he's probable for the Saints. Out for the Saints:

DE Eric Ogbogu (calf), LOLB Steve Foley (groin), S Stephon Kelly (quad). Questionable are CB Robert Bean (shoulder), OL Victor Leyva (ankle), OL Scott Rehberg (knee), LB Armegis Spearman (hip), OL Jamain Stephens (shoulder).

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