High class pass looks to ground

10-23-03, 10:50 p.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

The big play is back big time in the Bengals offense.

Wide receiver Chad Johnson leads the AFC's top 15 receivers with 17.5 yards per catch and is on pace to lop Eddie Brown's single-season team record by more than 200 yards. He and running mate Peter Warrick are on pace to become the first 80-catch duo in club history. The tight ends are on pace to have their most yards in a season since they were named Rodney Holman and M.L. Harris in 1984.

Just last Sunday against Baltimore, quarterback Jon Kitna hooked up with Johnson for the longest Bengals' pass in eight seasons (82 yards), while his 45-yard touchdown pass to Matt Schobel is the longest score to a tight end since 1989 in Paul Brown Stadium's best fireworks display since it opened three years ago.

But the Bengals know they won't be able to finish off many games if they can't find an old friend named Yards Per Carry. Y.P. Carry can't be too far away, because it was only in 2000 they finished second in NFL rushing, sixth in 1999, and even as recently as 2001 tied for 18th. Which is far from where they stand today at next-to-last at No. 31.

"It's simple. It's on us. The offensive line. We have to block better," said right tackle Willie Anderson.

Casual observers are scratching their heads because now that the long dormant down-field passing game is springing to life like some Rip Van Winkle wearing an '80s throw-back jersey, shouldn't the running game have more room?

But for the first time since Ki-Jana Carter broke the team's 67-game streak without a 100-yard rusher in 1997, the team is threatening to go seven straight games in a season without getting a 100-yard game from Corey Dillon.

They might not get one Sunday at PBS against Seattle, either, because he hasn't practiced Wednesday and Thursday. Head coach Marvin Lewis may have decided that three days of work last week was too much and backed him off to one practice if he goes Friday, but Lewis isn't tipping his hand.

The closest Dillon came to 100 yards in the six games this season is 84 yards on 19 carries in Oakland in a game he was limited with a hyperextended knee.

And Anderson doesn't want to hear about Dillon's injured groin that is preventing him from running like the guy who has gained the most yards in the NFL the past four seasons except for Curtis Martin.

"His skills aren't diminished. If we were blocking a lot of things better as an offensive line, maybe he'd be able to cut a lot better if we were getting our blocks better," Anderson said. "If we're blocking well, he doesn't have to make all those cuts. When a guy has an injury, the guys around him have to up their ability to play."

Offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski arrived in Cincinnati after the Bengals finished next to last in passing and second in rushing in the NFL in 2000. He has guided a powerful transformation, steering the passing game up to No. 11 this week despite facing three of the NFL's top four defenses and five of the top nine in Pittsburgh (2), Buffalo (3), Denver (4), Cleveland (6), and Baltimore (9).

Make it six of the top nine with No. 7 Seattle coming to town generating the second most turnovers in the league.

Bratkowski, who coordinated the Seattle passing offense that led the league in 1997, has few a theories why the Bengals' running game is in neutral.

"It's a combination of playing good defenses, we haven't blocked well, we haven't run the ball well at times, and there are times I haven't had us in the right schemes," Bratkowski said. "I see us making improvement. We spent hours with the coaches and hours with the players (since the bye week two weeks ago) and we've made it a point of emphasis and we've continued up to now with the way we practice the run game. I see progress."

Even though the Bengals have opened up the passing lanes, they are still getting a good diet of eight-man fronts designed to stop the run that they seemed to have solved in 2000 despite a comatose pass game. But the Bills held the Bengals to 67 yards three weeks ago with pretty much a seven-man front, with Bratkowski concluding, "this year, we haven't blocked either front well."

Bratkowski doesn't use the offensive line shakeup in the season's second game as a reason, when they moved center Mike Goff back to right guard, and installed Rich Braham back at center next to rookie left guard Eric Steinbach. Since the running game's high-water mark of Dillon's NFL-record 278 yards on Oct. 22, 2000, the Bengals have started 11 different line combinations because of injuries, demotions, and cuts.

But the flux didn't seem to be a problem in 2000, when Dillon ran for a career-best 1,435 yards behind five different lines. Plus, the line has meshed extremely well in pass protection, giving Kitna time to be the AFC's second-best passer on third down.

And, center Rich Braham notes while they need to get better and more consistent, they did grind out the necessary yards to salt away their two wins in the fourth quarter by converting some short yardage.

Running back Rudi Johnson converted a third-and one in Cleveland and Dillon did it against Baltimore in the fourth quarter to protect leads. When Johnson couldn't convert a fourth-quarter third-and-one in Buffalo in the red zone, they had to settle for a field goal in a game they lost in overtime.

So Bratkowski and the players are pointing to execution and consistency. As Rudi Johnson says, "finishing blocks, staying on blocks, the backs trusting the linemen and the linemen trusting the backs." Plus, Lewis has been known to start over such specific drills if they're not going well.

"(When Dillon was hurt) people were saying, 'It's Rudi and Brandon running," said backup running back Brandon Bennett. "But when Corey came back and it didn't get better, I think people started to realize it was the whole unit and not just the one or two guys back there."

Bennett believes the source of Dillon's frustration is he's unable to be the kind of back he's used to being because of the injury: "He's aggravated. He didn't think the injury would take this long to heal," Bennett said. Chad Johnson wants Dillon going nowhere.

"I wouldn't let him leave," Johnson said. "He wouldn't want to leave now when we're ready to take off. Once he gets healthy, can you imagine what that will mean to the passing game? A healthy Corey Dillon is good for four, five a pop, and that's just after contact. He's not healthy now. But in a few weeks, look out with a healthy C.D. back there."

Dillon is trying to become the fourth man to rush for 1,000 yards in his first seven seasons. He needs to average 80 yards per game (79.7) in the final 10 games to do it. In his 90 starts, he has averaged 82.3 yards despite an average of exactly half that this season at 41.

"That has to be a pride factor for each guy," Anderson said. "The fullback, the tight ends, the linemen, the running backs, everybody. We've got to recognize our history and our history has been we've been a good running football team. Not great, but OK. But like Marvin says. It's still early in the season and who's to say that in the latter part of the season that (we won't) break out and have a good running season?"

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