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JACKIE MACMULLAN

Dillon won't run from slow start

FOXBOROUGH -- You are wondering about Corey Dillon. He knows that. You see the numbers -- just 99 total yards rushing in two games -- and you are concerned.

You are concerned because you never even had to think about him last year. He was a model Patriot, efficient and explosive and exceedingly well-behaved. He cranked out a career-high 1,635 yards and 12 touchdowns in the midst of the best football season of his life. He re-established himself as a premier running back, provided needed balance to Tom Brady's offensive arsenal, and proved to be one of the most significant pickups -- if not the most significant pickup -- of the 2004 NFL season.

But Dillon is off to a slow start in 2005. He has yet to exhibit the same pop. He hasn't hit the holes quite as hard or quite as fast. He can't remember the last time he was held to 36 rushing yards, as he was Sunday against the Carolina Panthers. (For the record, it was when he gained just 24 against San Francisco Dec. 14, 2003, in his dark final days with the Bengals.) It's only been two games, for crying out loud, but you can't help but wonder. Is it the offensive line? The opponents? Dillon himself? A combination of all three?

''I don't see any difference in how I'm playing," Dillon said yesterday. ''We've played a couple of tough teams. No excuses. I've got to get it done."

His job will be infinitely harder Sunday against the Pittsburgh Steelers, who have been the reigning champion in stopping the rush for five seasons running. In that time, they have given up an average of just 87.6 yards per game. In their first two games this season -- both victories -- the Steelers have given up a grand total of 14 points.

You might recall the Patriots played the Steelers twice last year. Last Halloween, New England lost, 34-20, without Dillon in the lineup. Its rushing totals: 6 carries, 5 yards. In the AFC Championship game, the Patriots won, 41-27, and Dillon rushed for 74 yards on 24 carries.

''They make it very, very difficult for you," Dillon said.

He was the measure of calm yesterday, taking full responsibility for his reduced productivity and refusing to take the bait on any suggestions that his offensive line hasn't provided him with the necessary openings or has hamstrung the offense because of false start penalties.

''Put it on me," he said. ''I've been through this before."

Dillon knows what it's like to lose. The Bengals went 34-78 in his seven seasons in Cincinnati, including an 8-8 record in his final year, when he threw his equipment into the stands and declared he was moving on. There will be no theatrics of that nature here, he assured us.

''I know you guys are all waiting for an eruption, but that volcano done blown its top a long time ago," he said.

He politely answered each and every question, including one about his age (31) and the possibility of a dropoff in production because of it.

''It's a little early for that, I think," Dillon confided after the clumps of media thinned out. ''After two games, all of a sudden I'm old, I'm slow, I can't get the job done? Please.

''No matter what anyone says, I won a Super Bowl with these guys. Nobody can take that away from me."

The fact Dillon finally won a championship after toiling in Cincinnati all those years has led to speculation that he might not be playing with the same urgency he did last season. That theory was fueled, in part, by erroneous interpretations of an sideline exchange he had with Brady in the first quarter against Oakland on opening night. Dillon had just been stacked up for a 4-yard loss. On the next down, Brady threw a touchdown pass to Deion Branch, then engaged in some animated banter with his running back. The quarterback later explained he was merely telling Dillon not to get down on himself.

''People read into that, I guess," Dillon said, ''but I don't really care. It was nothing. It was [Brady] offering support. I don't know how it looked on television because I still haven't seen it, but it wasn't anything negative. It didn't get close to that point.

''I'd die on the field for that guy. And I know he'd do the same for me."

You don't have to be a Bill Belichick groupie or a football savant to understand how much easier Brady's life is when Dillon is running the ball effectively. Mild concern is appropriate -- even Dillon conceded that -- but there is too much football to be played to draw grand conclusions. This much Dillon promised: he's keeping his cool while he regains his rhythm.

''I'm too old to be frustrated," he said. ''Those days are over. I've been tested for situations like this. I'm not worried. I know I'm going to get better. I'll hang my hat on that."

There's nothing Belichick does better than deflect criticism of individuals on his team. He rarely -- if ever -- publicly singles out players by name when they haven't performed the way he'd like (although we have enough anecdotal evidence to suggest behind those locker room doors it's quite a different story). He was at his best when asked about Dillon yesterday.

''We need to play better as a team," he said. ''That goes for everybody. So I don't talk about any one player. I never have. I never will. It's about team play. Our running game helps our passing game. Our offense helps our defense. Our special teams helps both units. It's all tied together. I don't think you can boil it down to one player."

Willie McGinest was in no mood to hear people question Dillon, either.

''It's not even up for discussion," McGinest said. ''It's dumb to discuss it. We got behind early last week. Of course, we're going to throw the ball.

''And don't start talking about the 1,500 yards last season. That was last year. We're on to something completely different. I don't understand why, when it comes to this team, that people can't put the past in the past."

The past has served Dillon well. He is only one of four running backs in NFL history (the others are Eric Dickerson, Curtis Martin, and Barry Sanders) to run for more than 1,000 yards in each of his first six seasons. He has only come up shy once in eight years -- in 2003, when he had injuries, the Bengals were the epitome of mediocrity, and he threw in the towel (along with the shoulder pads and the cleats).

Can he gain 1,000 yards this season after such a sluggish start? We will be watching. Corey Dillon knows that.

''Don't worry," he promised. ''You'll like what you see."

Jackie MacMullan is a Globe columnist. Her e-mail address is macmullan@globe.com.

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