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Bears have running question

Like any team that faces the Bucs, the Bears have to move the ball on the ground if they want to be successful.

The question is: Who is going to run the ball? And the answer supposedly was a first-round pick in the 1998 draft.

Former Penn State running back Curtis Enis was expected to become a bruising ball carrier who typified the blue-collar ethic of Chicago, but Enis had a controversial holdout before tearing his left ACL in the seventh game of his rookie season.

In 1999, he rushed for 916 yards on 287 attempts. A suitable effort for someone coming off surgery. The 2000 season was pegged as a potential breakout year for Enis, but if last week was an indication, Enis is more likely to break down and cry.

Enis had four carries for 11 yards and one reception for 15 yards. Backup James Allen gained 60 yards on nine carries and some observers believe he may be the team's best running back. Coach Dick Jauron declined to make such a declaration.

"As we said last year _ and we still feel the same way _ we want to play them both, play them situationally and personnel-wise," Jauron said. "I liked the way they both handled it and the way they both performed."

The debate about Enis' lack of success has as much to do with the offense of coordinator Gary Crowton as it does with Enis' ability. Some are beginning to wonder whether the pass-happy attack is suited for a plodding 250-pounder. But last season, Enis carried 27 times when the Bears beat the Vikings at the Metrodome. With a 20-9 lead Sunday, Chicago kept throwing and Minnesota rallied.

THE MATCHUP: Keyshawn Johnson is in a different uniform, a different division and a different conference, but he keeps facing the same adversaries. Last week, Johnson battled New England cornerback Ty Law. Today, it's Thomas Smith, who staged some classic battles against Johnson when the cornerback was with Buffalo.

Smith is more friend than foe, however. The two have a mutual admiration and have hung out together in Los Angeles. Johnson believes Smith is one of the better corners but doesn't get the praise he deserves because the media focuses too much on statistics.

"He wasn't a guy who had six, seven, eight interceptions a year," Johnson said. "When you come up with seven or eight interceptions like Ty Law, then you the media go to writing crazy because somebody had good statistics. Thomas is a solid player who hasn't had a whole lot of interceptions throughout his career, so now he gets the quiet praise. You know how that goes."

Johnson hasn't often gotten the best of Smith. In seven meetings (Smith was injured for the second Bills-Jets game in 1998), Johnson has 32 receptions (4.6 a game) for 473 yards (67.6 a game) and one touchdown. He was held to four catches in both games last season (for 47 and 44 yards). Most important, Smith's team has won five of seven.

"Keyshawn called me right after he was traded to Tampa," Smith said. "He just said, "T-Smith, you are not done with me yet.' "

Both players will talk trash today, but the boasting has a lot to do with how they became friends.

TIGHTEN UP: John Lynch won't put a big hit on his brother-in-law today, but it's not because he's worried about upsetting his wife, Linda. Tight end John Allred has a bruised shoulder and is doubtful.

If Allred can't go, rookie Dustin Lyman will get the nod. But Lyman also is coming off a shoulder injury. Alonzo Mayes will be the backup and the team will look to get by with only two tight ends. Receiver Macey Brooks may play some tight end if necessary.

HEATING UP: Bears usually are fined $151 a pound for being overweight, but that has been waived because the players are hydrating to deal with the Florida heat.

Halas Hall was stocked last week with bananas, watermelons and other fresh fruits to increase water intake, potassium and electrolytes. The Bears are concerned because even in the Metrodome Sunday, several players became dehydrated, including receiver Marcus Robinson and guard Chris Villarrial.

_ Compiled by Ernest Hooper.