BY GEOFF HOBSON
The word has been passed as the Bengals prepare for Sunday's game against the Steelers.
It has been made quite clear by coach Dick LeBeau that running back Corey Dillon is 66 yards shy of 1,000 yards. Not only that, but Pittsburgh running back Jerome Bettis is 74 yards short of 1,000 and is in fine fettle after sitting out two practices this week with a leg bruise.
"We've got to help our guy get his 1,000 and then hold their guy down," said Bengals linebacker Adrian Ross. "If we help Corey, he'll help us, just by taking us off the field."
This game belongs to Dillon and Bettis because it certainly doesn't belong to the two quarterbacks who look to be getting the nod. If Akili Smith starts for the Bengals in place of the injured Scott Mitchell, then the game showcases the NFL's two lowest-rated passers with Smith's 50.1 rating and the 63.1 of Pittsburgh's Kordell Stewart.
Smith and Stewart have combined for six touchdown passes in their 406 attempts and Smith hasn't thrown for a touchdown in the 27 straight quarters he's played since Oct. 1. Stewart has three passing scores in the past five games while throwing four interceptions.
But Bengals' offensive players such as tight end Tony McGee have been impressed the way Smith responded in practice this week after watching Mitchell steer the Bengals to their best passing day of the season last Sunday in New England. They think Smith may have been taking notes on Mitchell.
"He was getting rid of the ball a lot quicker," McGee said. "He's not thinking. He's just going back and throwing it. Sometimes you see somebody else do it, and it helps. It's like when we put in a new play. Sometimes I like to see somebody else do it first."
As Dillon tries to become just the eighth NFL player to rush for 1,000 yards in his first four seasons, he's keeping a low-profile.
"I haven't looked at the numbers in weeks," Dillon said. "I'm not worried about statistics. I'm just focused on finishing strong. That's my main thing."
If one dares to peek at the numbers, the Bengals don't come off badly in this matchup.
The Steelers have been almost as brutal in the air (149.5 yards per game with a 47.2 completion percentage) as the Bengals (118.5, 44.4) in a meeting between two of the NFL's three worst pass offenses. . .
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But the Bengals are second in rushing and since the defense allowed Bettis' 100th yard rushing on his 29th and last carry of last month's game, Cincinnati has allowed 95 yards per game on the ground.
"I know they're going to give him the ball and hopefully I can get the ball," Dillon said. "It's going to come down to which offense wants it more. That's how I look at it."
In the Steelers' 15-0 win Oct. 15, Dillon rushed for just 36 yards on 15 carries against Pittsburgh's eight-men-in-a-box alignment, but he says, "we just didn't execute that day and we're running the ball a lot better now."
How much better?
After Pittsburgh got through with the Bengals last month, Cincinnati was 20th in rushing with 104 yards per game. Since then, the Bengals are rushing 183 yards per game.
But as center Rich Braham said, "We're going to have to throw. Not a ton. But enough."
Doesn't it always come back to Smith, in self-exile when it comes to the media? Dillon described Smith's play this week in practice as "sharp."
"Been there, done that," said Dillon when asked if it's a problem not knowing who the quarterback is until game time. "(Smith) has been working. Maybe it's a wakeup call for him. I've been impressed with what he's been doing."
Dillon has lined up behind six different starting quarterbacks since he arrived here in 1997. McGee, the dean of the offense, has him beat by four years and two quarterbacks.
"I thought (Smith) had a good week of practice. It looked like he was comfortable with what we're trying to do," said McGee, who also noticed Smith was trying to find ways to get the ball to his receivers even if they were covered.
"Putting it up and letting the guy make a play," McGee said. "that's part of it."