Showdown on the ground

10-16-03, 5 a.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

Marvin Lewis won't admit it, but he's probably got a slew of game balls from his days Xing and Oing against the Bengals as the Ravens defensive coordinator.

Those were the days when he hung shutouts on Cincinnati in each of the 1999, 2000, and 2001 seasons by walking eight, nine, and 10 men into the box against an offense built on and around running back Corey Dillon.

While Dillon pounded the Bengals into the upper echelon of the NFL rushing rankings (sixth in 1999, second in 2000, 18th in 2001), the passing game stuttered at Nos. 23, 31, and 23, respectively, conjuring up images of the Baltimore team that comes into Paul Brown Stadium Sunday strapped to the back of NFL rushing leader Jamal Lewis.

Now, as Dillon sneers at critics who suggest that pounding in the box has worn down his ample skills and he has locked out the media again, Lewis tries to adjust to the hits of fame in a possible matchup that the Bengals hope revives their old running game.

The contrast is as big as the gap in the stat sheet, where the Ravens are averaging a huge three more yards per carry than the Bengals at a ridiculous 5.9 to a tiny 2.9.

"That's the thing that probably amazes me the most," said Ravens head coach Brian Billick, whose team leads the AFC North despite having the NFL's lowest-rated passing game. "That we've been able to be as successful running the ball against eight- and nine-man fronts."

Oddly, the Bengals seemed to be more successful running the ball back in those nine-in-the-box days, before they got a more balanced offense in the form of a down-field passing game with the emergence of wide receivers Chad Johnson and Peter Warrick. The matchup with Jamal Lewis serves as a nice platform to examine how much the Bengals miss that punch on the ground, and how tough it will be to re-claim against one of their annual nemesis, a Raven defense still stingy without Marvin Lewis.

"It's been a point of emphasis for the last couple of weeks," said Bengals right guard Mike Goff of the league's fifth worst rushing game. "All it comes down to, really, is execution. You can work on it, but you have to do it in the game and you have to do it together."

There are murmurings that Lewis not only swiped Dillon's single-game rushing record last month with 295 yards against Cleveland, but also his spot as the premier back in the AFC North with the best brew of speed and power.

Even while praising the 225-pound Dillon Wednesday, the 230-pound Lewis said he's a bigger, faster back than Dillon.

But Dillon, who has played in just virtually two of the last 10 quarters with a groin injury, insisted before he shut down the media that he has lost nothing. After leaving the Cleveland game when he re-aggravated his groin strain on four carries for 20 yards, he asked, "What's that tell you? Five yards a bolt and I was hurting."

Numbers can say anything you want. Only Eddie George (1,381) and Curtis Martin (1,277) have more carries than Dillon's 1,232 over the past four seasons, and all have seen their yards per carry dip lately. George is down to 2.8 yards per carry this season after his career average fell to 3.4 last season. Martin, whose 4.2 yards last year dropped him to 4.0 for his career, is under four at 3.4 in '03. Dillon, who ended the '00 season with a 4.6 career average, entered this season at 4.2 and is at 3.7 this season on just 44 carries.

But then, Ricky Williams (1,197) and Stephen Davis (1,185) are 4-5 in the league in the number of carries the past four seasons, and Williams is flirting with a 1,500-yard pace while Davis is having a monster year with 5.3 yards per carry.

So, how many hits does a running back have if he is the offensive cornerstone?

"Depends," said Jamal Lewis, who has carried 30 times only once this season. "It depends on your offense. It depends on your linemen, how they're blocking. It doesn't matter how many carries you get, it's how often you get hit. That's why I tell my guys to keep guys off of me. If I'm going to run the ball 30 times a game, you've got to keep them off me.

"If you're getting two, three yards a carry, then that's a problem," Lewis said. "That means guys are swarming and taking those blows at you. It's how you train, how you keep your body, how your body is going to work for you and how you work for your body. That's what it boils down to.'

And Dillon passes with flying colors on that score. Running backs coach Jim Anderson says, "he's a bigger, stronger man when he first got here," and, "When something happens to you that's out of your control, the only thing you can do is get treatment for it and he's been great about it."

Dillon stayed in Cincinnati so he could continue to rehab during the bye week, and by all appearances it looks like he's getting his famous chip-on-the-shoulder ready. After three weeks of whispers about his durability were capped off with trade rumors, he angrily wants to show he's still got it.

But there is still a question if he'll play. Anderson said, "I like to think he will," but Marvin Lewis is going to be more cautious than he was before the Cleveland game, when he suited Dillon up and then didn't have him in the second half.

"That affects my decision big time. We want to make sure we don't leave ourselves at risk at some other position, based on how he feels," Lewis said, "Let's just make sure he's totally able and he's back to where he can be Corey. He tried to drag himself out there and it didn't work out for the best. He would have probably been served better if we had sat him that week, and we would be sure this week about where he is."

But Jamal Lewis even gave Dillon more incentive when he innocently gave his scouting report of the man whose record he broke.

"I think I'm a bigger back and I have much more speed than he does," Jamal Lewis said. "But as far as patience, I think I'm getting there. As far as getting to that point of watching him and other great backs in the league, you have to have that patience and that's what I'm trying to develop."

Dillon is proud of his speed and the fact he proved the front office wrong about his ability to run away from safeties in winning his club-record five-year contract two years ago after leading the league in 20-yard carries and longer. During training camp, he even beat the man widely considered to be the fastest on the team in a 100-yard challenge when he got sick of Chad Johnson talking about how fast he is.

Yet the numbers would say Lewis now has the breakaway speed in the division. He has four runs of at least 48 yards this season. Since Dillon had a 67-yard touchdown run against the Colts 53 weeks ago, he hasn't had a run longer than 31 yards in his 15 games.

But there are also other factors. Dillon simply hasn't had the carries this year, and while Lewis is averaging 23 carries per game this year, Dillon has not had more than 23 carries once in his last 13 games. And he's had 23 just once.

Plus, his offensive line is admittedly not executing in the running game as well as the Baltimore line, which is the biggest in the league.

Lewis says he can be stopped, but "what it is going to take to stop me I don't know because I have guys in front of me that are hungry."

Lewis has watched parts of Dillon's 278-yard game that broke Walter Payton's record three years ago and stood until Lewis' magical 295-yard day in Cleveland, and he saw similarities with the cut-back runs.

"He was making his reads and the offensive line was dominating the line of scrimmage," Lewis said. "If the line dominated the line of scrimmage in every game and every play like mine did and his did, you'd have great days all the time. That's not really going to happen. But it was just a day where everything kind of clicked, and the offensive line was in a zone and the running (back) was in a zone."

The Bengals' offensive line is trying to get into the same zone in the running game that they are in the passing game, where they have allowed one sack in the last two games. Center Rich Braham is encouraged by those outings in hostile road stadiums, and the extra work on the running game during the bye week.

Last week, Marvin Lewis called for the backs and line to be more patient, and to stick with the design of a running play instead of trying to adjust after a play has blown up.

"We have to trust each other and have faith in each other and stick with what we're doing," Braham said. "We worked with the backs to see what we're thinking and what they're thinking. We've worked on things like combination blocking, but the bottom line is what we do in a game."

Offensive line coach Paul Alexander is the same guy that helped put together that devastating running game of a few years back, and he thinks his line will emerge again. He has seen signs. Now that rookie left guard Eric Steinbach is getting more and more acclimated with each game, and they have made the decision to stick with Goff and not rotate in Matt O'Dwyer at right guard, there is hope that familiarity is going to breed yards.

"We're going to need Matt by the end of the year, but we felt right now the best way to stabilize things is to go with five guys," Alexander said. "Once you get on a roll, it's like anything else in sports. It's all confidence and getting a feel for it and sticking with it."

While Dillon has been banging his head against eight and nine men in the box for most of his career, Jamal Lewis said he couldn't imagine doing it for that long. But he's content to do it now so he takes pressure off rookie quarterback Kyle Boller. But he said he's confident that the Ravens coaches will make sure he gets freed up, and he predicted the box will be freed up before the end of the season.

But he and Billick know it won't be that way Sunday. They know from first-hand experience that Marvin Lewis is going to do whatever is necessary to stop the run.

"I don't know why a team wouldn't do that against us," Billick said. "I imagine Marvin will do it in his normal, creative and well thought-out way."

But Lewis is careful about these so-called one-dimensional offenses. He only has to look on Dillon's 278-yard tape to see that the Bengals won that game even though they didn't complete a pass in the last three quarters.

"When you run the football the way that they do, you can control the game," said Lewis of the Ravens. "The run sets up some big plays, and they have gotten down the field in the passing game because they are running the football so effectively. Jamal has had a lot of explosive plays for a guy running the football. (The Ravens have) I think five plays of 30 yards or better. For a guy running the football, that is a lot of plays. It might even be seven plays and one called back. That's a lot of big-chunk plays running the football."

Dillon's teammates insist there are similarities with him and Lewis, and that he's the same Corey.

"They've both got the speed to go the distance," said free safety Kevin Kaesviharn. "He's like Corey in the sense they're a lot tougher to tackle than a lot of guys. A lot of guys try to spin away from you, and try to get out of a tackle, but these guys are looking for you. They explode into you with their body and break tackles, and then run away from you. They bring the wood to you."

No one doubts if he's healthy that Dillon is going to love burying that chip on his shoulder into the Ravens to prove his worth against the guy trying to take his mantle in the AFC North.

"When you don't get to play, and you have been playing for so long you kind of miss it," said quarterback Jon Kitna. "So I'm sure he is going to have a little extra adrenalin out there, and it's up to us to get him free and get some plays where he gets onto those defensive backs. That's where he scares people the most, when he's running on those defensive backs, and that's what we need to do."

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