Rudi, Rudi, Rudi

10-2-03, 8:10 a.m. Updated:
10-2-03, 9:45 a.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

Since Corey Dillon bolted into the Bengals' starting lineup in November of 1997, they have never gone more than six straight weeks without a 100-yard runner.

Now they go into Buffalo Sunday not starting Dillon (groin) for the first time in the 21st century and they haven't had one in five weeks dating back to last season's finale.

They may not get 100 from one guy on Sunday, either, but all indications are they will try to run it as if Dillon were there. It just may look differently and it may come from multiple sources as they watch the third longest starting streak by a NFL running back come to an end.

"We've been extremely fortunate that Corey has been so durable and reliable," said offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski, who has started with Dillon in all of his 36 games here. "But in this league, you're used to going with other guys because people get hurt playing this game."

Especially running backs. Only Eddie George (117) and Curtis Martin (80) have more consecutive starts than Dillon's 52 and the next group has less than 40. But it also shows you the problem the Bengals face at Ralph Wilson Stadium.

"Our running game is tailored to Dillon," said offensive line coach Paul Alexander. "We have to see what other plays our backs run best."

Rudi Johnson has moved ahead of Brandon Bennett on the depth chart, but Bratkowski said that doesn't indicate what he has in mind and that Bennett is going to get plenty of work.

"We've got a plan that I won't divulge," Bratkowski said. "We're going to get them both involved."

But the guy who was involved at the end of last Sunday's victory in Cleveland was the 5-10, 220-pound Johnson. It turned out the Bengals' first

win of the season was the ideal forum for Johnson to show his strengths. The Bengals had the lead for the final 24 minutes of the second half, allowing Johnson to bow his head and churn out 51 yards on 15 carries, a career day for a third-year back who came into the day with 17 NFL carries.

"He's a straight down-hill runner. He's got great contact balance," said Bills linebacker Takeo Spikes, a former Bengal who recalled what his fellow Auburn alum did to the Bills in the preseason. "I know what he can do. A lot of the guys here know what he can do. When I was with Cincinnati, we came up here (last year) and nobody could even tackle Rudi. That's what these guys are still talking about. He's not as fast as damn Corey. He's a power runner."

After watching the Bengals continue to pound it without Dillon in there, Spikes expects the Bengals to try to run it Sunday in much the same fashion. Johnson saw the game plan Wednesday, but didn't tip his hand.

"I'm just going to do what I always do and that's execute the offense," Johnson said.

The Bengals' mantra since Johnson surfaced Sunday is "Four Yards Is A Great Play." That's what Johnson has provided since, well, forever.

"The one thing you can say about Rudi," said running backs coach Jim Anderson, 'is that he's a runner. He knows how to tote it. He's been doing it his whole life."

There is another thing Johnson has been doing his whole life.

"A lot of people look at how many yards I have, but that's secondary to me," Johnson said. "Everywhere I've been, we've won championships. That matters to be more than the records."

While becoming Thomas Dale High School's all-time leading rusher (at a school his cousin and Packers fullback William Henderson attended), he led the Ettrick, Va., school to back-to-back appearances in the state championship game. He then led Butler County CC to back-to-back national junior college championships, and gained 373 yards in the second title game. He helped the Tigers to the SEC West championship by rushing for 1,567 yards.

It's a testament to Johnson's power that the Bengals' back Anderson compares his style to is a fullback.

"His demeanor and the way he shuffles his feet and goes into the line reminds you of Stanley Wilson," Anderson said. "He has that good contact balance."

Wilson is one of eight backs who have had 100-yard games during Anderson's 20-year tenure. If Johnson becomes the ninth, he'll have to pop a long one or two. Some wonder if he can, but he never averaged less than 4.8 yards per carry during his college career that included setting the single season record at Auburn with 324 carries. His longest run Sunday was 11 yards.

"He's popped them before," Anderson said.

"I had a few long ones at Auburn," Johnson said. "I'm trying to move the chains. Four yards is a good play. That's what I try to do. Keep the ball moving, take some time off the clock, let the defense rest. I rely on speed to get in and out of the hole. See the hole, and get in and out of them as quickly as possible."

Head coach Marvin Lewis, who is always stressing finishing, liked the way Johnson finished his runs. But he's looking for a more complete game out of the position.

"Part of being a factor is knowing the protections, know everything that you have to do, running the football, catching the football, where you belong all the time," Lewis said. "It's not taking anything away from Rudi, but we're not going to dump all of this on him, just because he hasn't been the guy. I think Brandon deserves the role that he is in, and we'll continue to work that way."

Quarterback Jon Kitna admires Johnson's never-get-phazed appearance in the huddle and his laid-back approach. Johnson has never wondered if his style has maybe rubbed some people the wrong way in his bid to get more playing time.

"That's just the way I am," Johnson said. "I feel like what I'm going to do, I'm going to do it on the field. I'm not going to talk about it. I'm going to let what I do on the field do my talking."

**

QUICK HITS:** Bills RB Travis Henry is, at best, 50-50 after Wednesday's practice. Henry, battling injured rib cartilage, focused mainly on individual work and didn't participate in 11-on-11. . .

New Bengals running back Kenny Watson practiced Wednesday, but admitted it would be tough taking snaps from scrimmage Sunday while still learning the offense. He said the coaches have told him to mainly be concerned with special teams, and since running backs Brandon Bennett and Rudi Johnson are two of their kick-off returners, Watson could get the call. He returned 23 kicks for a 21.6-yard average during his rookie year last season in Washington.

"Kenny proved last year he can be a productive back in the NFL," said head coach Marvin Lewis, who saw him do it as the Redskins defensive coordinator. "He'll be a special teams player for us and a reserve backup running back. He's a guy that can run and make people miss, and catches the football very well."

By the way, the Bills were one of the teams Watson worked out for after the Redskins released him on Cutdown Day. He also visited Baltimore and Green Bay. . .

Bengals WR T.J. Houshmandzadeh has been upgraded to questionable for the first time since he injured his hamstring the week of the opener. TE Matt Schobel (hamstring) and MLB Riall Johnson (calf) are also questionable, but only Schobel suited up for practice Wednesday. . .

**

SPIKES CALL:** Bills linebacker Takeo Spikes talked to the Cincinnati media via conference call Wednesday, but he's been on the phone with his teammates ever since he left in free agency back in March, talking to guys like Brian Simmons, Willie Anderson, and Tony Williams. Former head coach Dick LeBeau and defensive line coach Tim Krumrie have declined interview requests from Cincinnati this week, but the Buffalo media has been told it can interview them if the subject isn't the Bengals.

Spikes gets the sense his buddies like what Marvin Lewis has done in his first season.

"They feel like things are going to change. It's just a matter of everyone being on the same page and being consistent when they learn how to win," Spikes said.

But Spikes didn't mince words why he's not

here anymore.

"I felt like my tank was running low with the stuff you had to put up with around there and then week in and week out getting yourself pumped up mentally, thinking you have a chance to win, and then just be disappointed most of the time," Spikes said.

Asked about what stuff, Spikes demurred and said to look at the clips: "It ain't hard. Go back and print anything I said before. I'm not trying to beat anybody down. If I was still there, then I'd probably still tell you, but I'm out of there."

Lewis is here, but it didn't matter to Spikes. In his mind, one man couldn't wipe away the five years of just 19 victories.

"I felt like I did my time," Spikes said. "I told him. I knew he had personal goals he wanted to accomplish in life and I had the same thing. I felt like me being there with him and him being there with me, we'd be kind of cutting short each other's personal goals."

Spikes seemed to actually enjoy the banter with the media that covered him for five years. On the subject of his ESPN commercial in which he is seen courting an absent Jennifer Lopez, Spikes said he wrote two of the lines.

"A Takeo Spikes special," he said. "You don't think they could have thought of that, do you?"

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