8-6-01, 3:45 p.m.
BY GEOFF HOBSON
GEORGETOWN, Ky. - A rundown of the running backs after the Bengals' 16-13 loss to the Bears Saturday night. One of the hot debates of this training camp is how many backs to keep. Four or five? It looks like they will only keep one fullback, but that could change as games are played.
Lock: RB Corey Dillon.
Virtual lock: FB Lorenzo Neal.
Grinding: RB Brandon Bennett, Curtis Keaton, RB Rudi Johnson, RB Michael Basnight, FB Clif Groce.
This is running backs coach Jim Anderson's 18th Bengals' training camp and the dean of the club's position coaches has seen enough to proclaim there there are no roster locks in what he ranks as one of his most competitive camps.
Well, OK. It looks like two-time Pro Bowler Corey Dillon can make plans for Sept 9. In fact, the only lock is Dillon is going to sit out Friday night's second pre-season game against the Lions and won't make his '01 debut until the Aug. 25 home opener.
Dillon hasn't taken a live snap yet and there are signs he's getting anxious to stiff arm somebody. He tossed his helmet a few times in one practice last week and he's been banging around defensive backs during the semi-live practice sessions.
"Oh yeah, I'm in a rage right now," Dillon said before Monday's practice here at Georgetown College. "I want to play, but I'm going with the program. Whatever the coaches want. They're stowing me, but there's nothing I can do about it. I'll be ready when my number is called, period. Right now it looks like it's at Paul Brown against Buffalo. Fine with me."
You can get a debate on whether your top running back needs more work than the last two pre-season games to get sharp. But the Bengals figure Dillon is going to get more than last year's 315 carries, he's in top shape, and he's not missing any practice snaps.
And since 1995, the Bengals have suffered one season-ending injury (Ki-Jana Carter) and two career-ending injuries (long snapper Greg Truitt and safety Kelvin Moore) on the Astroturf in Pontiac, Mich.
Quarterback Scott Mitchell saw the Lions barely use future Hall-of-Famer Barry Sanders in the preseason and Sanders thought it hurt him.
"Barry would tell you, 'It takes me two or three games before I get going,'" Mitchell said. "He'd just be out there in the first two games of the year, but like a fine wine, he got better with time. You don't want to have to wait two or three games before he gets uncorked."
But Dillon said it's not like last year, when he missed the first two pre-season games because of a holdout and then managed just 82 yards on 41 carries in his first three regular-season games. Dillon has pointed out all aspects of the offense struggled in those first three games the Bengals scored just seven points.
"Totally different," Dillon said of this season. "I've been in every practice taking pretty much every snap and running hard. That's what I'm
working on right now. My timing and I've been working with all the quarterbacks."
Anderson thinks the last two games are plenty of time because of the intensity Dillon has brought to camp, "but his only adjustment is that the last two pre-season games are going to be speeded up."
The shelving of Dillon has allowed Anderson to get a long look at a crowded spot. A major reason the Bengals might not go with six receivers is because they don't want to sacrifice the fifth running back.
Second-year running backs Curtis Keaton and rookie Rudi Johnson asserted themselves Saturday night.
Keaton showed why he's going to be tough to cut because he's their only back with the explosive speed that carried him to 87 yards on 16 carries. At his first minicamp in 2000, he ran the fastest first 10 yards of a 40-yard dash by a Bengals' skill player in 30 years.
And Johnson showed why the Bengals drafted him in the fourth round. He's a north-south, 235-pound guy who can pound through a 20-30-carry game if need be.
"Corey is quicker than me. I'm just looking to move the chains," Johnson said. "The coaches tell me four yards is a good run. That's what I'm looking to do."
Perfect. He carried 13 times for 52 yards in his debut, a 4.0 average.
But there is also Brandon Bennett, Dillon's proven versatile backup who rushed for 324 yards on 90 carries last year while catching 19 balls.
Plus, 235-pound Michael Basnight, getting his first action since missing all last year with a broken wrist, had some strong runs in Chicago and finished averaging 3.9 yards on nine carries.
Bennett can do all the things the Bengals hope Keaton and Johnson can do one day consistently. Block. Catch. Although they still lack experience, the team's last two fourth-rounders opened some eyes Saturday. Particularly Keaton.
One of the worries about him is that he tended to get the wide eyes in his rookie year and he said early Saturday he was jittery. But he calmed down and ran the Bengals back into the game.
"He's grown up," said Anderson, who doesn't agree that the knock on Keaton last was he was a tentative dancer.
"I just think he's going with the plan now," Anderson said. "Before, it was like he thought the athletic abilities God have him was going to be enough to carry him through."
Keaton admits he's a big-picture guy. But Anderson, the ultimate-detail man, has had an impact. Keaton worked on catching balls from the quarterbacks and jugs machines at his college alma mater, James Madison, during the offseason. And he got his brother to throw him some bad balls.
"Life is all about details and if you don't pay attention to them, you can end up on the short end of the stick," Keaton said. "I think I know my responsibilities better now. I'm getting used to the game."
Keaton had four runs of at least 10 yards Saturday with a long of 15. He wants some of those long ones to be longer.
"I didn't quite play it like I wanted to," Keaton said. "A couple of times I made it to the safety. Out of those times, I've got to get by him at least once. The backs who have the big-play potential are the ones that can do that. You've to make those guys miss in the secondary. I know God has blessed me with that. It's like pieces of the puzzle. You have to put the things you do all together."
But Anderson still has the difficult chore of piecing together his roster.