11-6-03, 7:45 a.m.
BY GEOFF HOBSON
Even before this practice week began, Corey Dillon admitted he's not 100 percent. But the Bengals' all-time leading rusher also insisted his strained groin isn't why he's off to the worst start of his career.
"There's nothing wrong with my timing. Nothing at all," Dillon said. "I've been doing this for seven years. I'm a veteran of this game. I've got stats out the yin-yang. No, I'm not 100 percent. I'd be lying to you if I said I was. But I'm good enough."
Dillon insists he's not playing tentatively. He points to his tackle at mid-field on an end-zone interception that got called back last Sunday.
"That's the type of guy I am. Physical. I bust guys in the chops for a living," Dillon said. "I'm not scared to do that. I think I'm more aggressive when I'm hurt."
But on Thursday, Dillon admitted what many press-box observers felt Sunday in Arizona. He can no longer try to be himself with the first major injury of his career, which is not great news for the struggling Bengals' running game that did get a 101-yard shot two weeks ago from backup Rudi Johnson.
But when did you think you would ever see Cincinnati ranked next-to-last in NFL rushing while Pittsburgh is fourth worst? They are coming off their worst rushing game since last year's opener and Dillon started this week like he started last week by being categorized as questionable and not practicing Wednesday or Thursday.
All of which has raised the question of his timing with the offensive line even though he missed just one practice last week before being upgraded to probable, starting in Arizona, and then having to sit out the second half because of tightness.
But head coach Marvin Lewis, right tackle Willie Anderson and his linemates won't get into Dillon's health, and no one wants to debate if having Dillon in the lineup at 80-85 percent is better than Rudi Johnson at 100 percent even though Johnson appeared to be more effective than Dillon in Arizona. Apparently they feel it's a moot point until there is better blocking while downplaying Dillon's inability to take all the practice snaps.
"We have to give him more room," Anderson said, "and if he's injured, we have to block that much better."
Asked if he's healthy, Anderson said, "I can't answer that question. I don't know the man's body. . . As soon as he's ready to go, we need him in there. He's our stud running back. . .We know he's a guy coming to work, on Sunday he plays hard, and in the past that has ignited us."
If anyone knows if Dillon is on or not, it's Brandon Bennett, his backup five of the past six seasons. Bennett watched the seemingly impossible when Dillon rushed for a career-high 1,435 yards in 2000 even though the passing game was ranked next-to-last in the NFL. He thinks the toughest thing for Dillon is that he's only carried 29 times in a game since Sept. 21 because he's missed two games and had to leave two other games early.
"I think he needs to go out there one time in practice as a game situation and see if he can hit it as hard as he can," said Bennett, who thinks it's hard for a back to miss a lot of game snaps. "I just think he hasn't been there for awhile. As a back, you've got to get a feel for the blocking. It's easy to know it on paper. But when you got out there and you have to react in .1 seconds, you need that game-time experience."
Bennett knows a little bit of what Dillon is going through. He went through some tough times in 2000 as he came back from reconstructive knee surgery.
"When you're in a situation where you're hurt, you maybe don't even notice you're not running as hard as you can," Bennett said. "You're so used to this controlled tempo to keep from hurting and you don't really hit it, so you don't go past what hurts. Even when you're healed up, you still have to get it out of your mind.
"It's a lot of stress for him," Bennett said. "This aggravates him. It's hard not knowing how it's going to feel and what you can do. You're talking about a warrior."
But Dillon's groin is just one of the reasons the running game hasn't been like it was. As offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski has always insisted, "It's never one thing," but he said a major factor in Arizona was "the inability to convert those third downs. Now you have fewer chances."
Rudi Johnson thought a big factor against the Cardinals was that whenever the Bengals seemed to get the run going, a penalty would push them back into a passing situation. That happened right away on the first series with two false starts. The first one was on rookie left guard Eric Steinbach. Center Rich Braham took the blame for the second when he couldn't hear the snap count even though they were playing in front of the NFL's smallest crowd.
"I don't know. We just happened to be in that end zone and they got louder when we screwed up the first time," Braham said. "Then we went to a silent count and we were fine."
Another possible reason? A rookie starter and an interior line switch after the opener?
Braham said the Bengals have tweaked their scheme beginning last season in which they are doing more straight-ahead blocking to mix in with their zone blocking, but he says that has been a pretty smooth transition.
"I don't think it's a case where everything is fouled up," Braham said. "It's usually just one thing breaking down and we have to lock it up and get on the same page."
Anderson agrees, saying on one run it might be the receivers who break down, and then on the next run it might be the line.
"I don't think it's a big problem," Rudi Johnson said. "I just think it's a matter of putting it all together and getting on a roll."
Johnson admits he's a guy that gets better as the game goes along and the more carries he gets the better. Since Dillon is the same type of back, a committee wouldn't appear to work.
"Most backs are like that," Bratkowski said. "If you're able to get a lion's share of runs, you get the feel for the blocking against that team that week."
Bratkowski also says any player who can't practice isn't going to be as sharp with the little things, but he doesn't label lack of practice time and rotating backs as major reasons for the low rushing output. Anderson keeps putting it back on the line.
"When you block for a top guy, a guy like Corey who has had six 1,000-yard seasons , that's the things I take personal," Anderson said. "I hold on to that (as an offensive lineman). We don't have anything else. We don't have any Super Bowls, or Pro Bowls. The stamp for everyone in the league if you're a good offensive line is running the ball.
"We do get excited for an 80 yard bomb to Chad (Johnson), but we'd rather see Corey, or Rudi, or Brandon, run for 80 yards. because that's what ignites your team, It ignites your defense standing on the sidelines. The physical play. That's what football is all about."