11-24-03, 6:30 a.m.
BY GEOFF HOBSON
SAN DIEGO _ Left guard Eric Steinbach called them "Double Trouble."
Rudi Johnson called the full-time teaming of himself with Corey Dillon,"Double the pleasure, double the fun."
On Sunday, the Bengals took the wraps off their "R2 D2 Backfield," in an offense that suddenly has more weapons than the next "Star Wars," flick. Dillon shook off the cobwebs of injury and rehab to roll up his first 100-yard game of the season on six yards per his 18 carries for 108. Johnson plowed for 65 more yards on 16 carries to stay on his 1,000-yard pace as the Bengals literally balanced the Chargers to death with 225 yards rushing and 229 passing in a 34-27 victory.
The day included Dillon's longest run of the season on his first carry of the day, a vintage 39-yard cut-back up the middle that he veered to sideline and finished off with a stiff arm. The Bengals' all-time leading rusher declared himself back after the 28th 100-yard game of his career.
"What do you think? How'd I look?" asked a pleased Dillon when asked if he thought he all the way back. "There is never going to be an issue between Corey and Rudi. If I need a spell, he'll be there. If he needs a spell, I'm going to be there."
With five games left and the Steelers looming in Pittsburgh next week with a revived running game, Bengals' coaches and players excited about their developing 1-2 punch.
"I think down the stretch," said Bengals quarterback Jon Kitna, "having two big hogs like that back there does nothing but help as the weather gets colder."
It sure helped Kitna stay warm in the 70-degree heat here at Qualcomm Stadium. Kitna pitched four more touchdown passes, all in the first half, as the Bengals' offense continues its rapid maturity into one of the most prolific in franchise history. They are on pace to score 355 points, the eighth most in team history and the first time they'll break 300 since the 355 in 1997.
Kitna now has 19 touchdown passes to nine interceptions, a pace comparable to the 28 touchdowns and 14 interceptions Boomer Esiason had when he was the NFL MVP in 1988. The Bengals have scored 167 points in the last six games, a field goal more than Esiason and Jeff Blake engineered in the last six games of 1997, and Kitna praised his unit for selfless play not seen in these parts of late.
"The way we've been playing. Running the football, who ever we play, we're not going to change our game plan," Kitna said. "We're not going to change who we are. We've established our identity in this league now and teams have to defend us."
The identity is becoming a versatile, deep, and even a bit of a gadget one. With the Chargers trying to guard against R2 D2 on the ground, outside wide receivers Chad Johnson and Kelley Washington fried San Diego's young cornerbacks in one-on-one coverage in the first half.
Wide receiver Peter Warrick, last week's hero, had more yards rushing (17) than receiving (14). The tight ends didn't have a catch, but Washington had career highs with five catches and 61 yards. Running back Brandon Bennett, a little-used third-down back, caught three passes for first downs.
"We have some people that played very unselfishly today. Peter Warrick being one of them," Kitna said. "He made some great blocks throwing his body around. Guys are starting to understand that certain weeks you're playing a different role. We don't have the selfishness we used to have here. Guys are just sucking it up and doing whatever it takes to win football games and that's a very positive thing for us because that means we're a football team and not just a bunch of individuals."
Kitna pointed to Washington, a third-round pick who came into the game with just 11 catches for 123 yards.
"It would have been easy for him to be frustrated and upset about not getting the football this year," Kitna said. "But he keeps working hard every week and look at how he goes out there and just does things that are very unselfish."
In the second half, the Bengals kept pounding the run even though San Diego dared the Bengals to throw. And there is the Marvin Lewis' philosophy.
"Get up on them," Lewis said, "and pound them."
Offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski stayed with the run even with the Chiefs selling out on it in the second half. Three weeks after the running game imploded in Arizona, the Bengals have rushed for at least 200 yards each week.
Dillon had a vintage series in the third quarter. With the Bengals burning 7:31 off the clock, Dillon churned 25 yards on five carries to help set up Shayne Graham's 37-yard field goal that made it 31-13 with 2:23 left in the third quarter.
They mostly alternated series, but with running backs coach Jim Anderson directing traffic Sunday, they got chances in the same series. When the Chargers cut the lead to 14-13 with4:06 left in the first half, they each rushed for a 10-yard gain in the six-play drive on the way to Chad Johnson's 12-yard touchdown that jacked the lead again.
"It was the kind of game we were able to give both opportunities," Bratkowksi said. "It's because we were able to get a lot of plays, we were able to make first downs and get some long drives. If we get to a point where we get our plays knocked down to 50, 60 plays, that's where it's going to be difficult to get them enough carries that gets both of them rolling."
With Jim Anderson supervising the substitutions as they rolled up 85 plays by converting a staggering 13 of 20 third downs, Bratkowski said the backs were able to virtually work it out among themselves when each needed a rest.
After Dillon chewed up eight yards on the first two plays of the last drive, Johnson got the next two calls for five yards.
"It's my first time back in a long time and, yeah, I was gassed," Dillon said.
Dillon, getting his most work since 19 carries for 84 yards in the second week of the season, said he had no pain in the tender spot near where the groin and abdomen meet. He said it all came down to timing with his offensive line.
"I told Willie it's not about them slowing down waiting for me," said Dillon of a conversation with right tackle Willie Anderson. "It's about me speeding up and catching up to what they're doing. I worked extra hard on the scheme of things and it paid off today."
Willie Anderson said Dillon's ability to practice for the whole week was apparent in his timing and he observed, "They were both in a rhythm. We couldn't tell who was back there until we saw them run past us."
Bratkowski defied the critics who say he's not imaginative by running Warrick three times for 17 yards out of various sweeps and counters, and he used a couple of shuffle passes, including one to Bennett for 11 yards on third-and-nine that led to Shayne Graham's season-long 47-yard field goal that made it a two-touchdown game with 5:26 left. Bratkowski promised more of the same in the coming weeks as the Bengals become more proficient in an offense starting to feature a scaled-down but more effective set of running plays.
"We had things we wanted to put in for a few weeks, but we wanted to stabilize the running game first where we didn't have a lot of new runs," Bratkowski said. "We've been able to limit the number of running plays and that's probably helped us run it better as well as (use the wrinkle plays). We can add some of the different stuff doing that."
Kitna underlined how important it is that the Bengals are staying away from turnovers. His fumble on a sack was the only one Sunday, giving them two in their six victories and just 13 in 11 games compared to 23 in 11 games last season.
"We're not turning the ball over and because of that we've been able to maintain our game plan for the whole game. That's a big key for us," Kitna said.
The other two big keys each weigh about 220 pounds in that R2 D2 backfield that Bratkowski can suddenly use to zap foes at any moment.
"We're blessed to have two strong, talented runners that are pretty fresh for this time of year,' Bratkowski said.