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THE LESSONS HAVE been painful -- every bit as painful as the shoulder injury that turned Cornelius Bennett's 1989 season into a nightmare.

Lesson No. 1: Professional athletes receive criticism from fans and media. And it can be vicious at times.

Lesson No. 2: Even the most naturally gifted performers can be helped through coaching. But only if they're willing to accept it.

The pain has long subsided, in his left shoulder as well as his psyche. Bennett relaxes in a chairbetween player meetings at Rich Stadium, where the Buffalo Bills have been preparing for today's game against the New York Giants.

He is happy about the Bills' 11-2 record. He is proud of his contributions to the team's success.

"I think I'm having my best season," the 24-year-old outside linebacker says.

There are those who might be quick to challenge that assessment. They look at his measly four sacks in 13 games and note that he had 8 1/2 in eight games as a rookie three years ago. And 9 1/2 in 16 games in 1988. And even 5 1/2 in 11 games in '89.

Yet, there is ample proof that Bennett, in fact, has improved dramatically since the first day he wore a Bills uniform.

Consider these other statistics: a team-leading 15 quarterback pressures; 86 tackles, which is second on the club behind the 93 of fellow outside linebacker Darryl Talley; a team-high 66 initial hits; three forced fumbles, which ties him for second on the squad with strong safety Leonard Smith; two fumble recoveries, which ties him for second on the club with defensive end Leon Seals.

Consider, too, that earlier this season, the NFL named him AFC Defensive Player of the Week two weeks in a row, making him the first player in league history to receive the honor consecutively.

"Cornelius is playing more disciplined football than at any time in his career," defensive coordinator Walt Corey says. "He's tuned in. He's going in the right direction to have a long career."

NFL careers have a way of being shortened when outside criticism is allowed to penetrate rather than deflect.

And they are even more threatened when coaching is ignored.

"Criticism and coaching," Bennett says, shaking his head. "Those are the two hardest things I've ever had to adjust to in my life."

He was crushed by talk last season that he might have been an expensive mistake for the Bills. He kept his shoulder problems quiet, so as to not inform the opposition, and was frustrated that fans and media didn't know or want to believe he was playing well below his normal strength. He also resented talk he was malingering during the five games he missed late in the season with a knee injury.

It wasn't that way when, in grammar school, Bennett outperformed older and larger players on the sandlots of his hometown of Birmingham. It wasn't that way when, at Birmingham's Ensley High School, he literally scared opponents off the schedule. It wasn't that way when, at the University of Alabama, he was collecting the Vince Lombardi award as the nation's top defender and other honors, and being touted as the second coming of Lawrence Taylor.

"Everything that had ever been said about me was good," Bennett points out.

That remained the case the day he arrived in Buffalo, after being acquired from Indianapolis in the blockbuster trade that cost the Bills a pair of first-round draft picks, a second-rounder and running back Greg Bell. And it still was true after the '88 season, when he helped the Bills' defense become one of the NFL's best and was selected to the Pro Bowl.

Then, came last year. Not only wasn't he making as many sacks as before, he wasn't consistently getting anywhere near the quarterback or any one else with the football. Offensive tackles and tight ends would swallow him immediately after the snap.

Fans and media would devour him after the game.

But out of the experience came the realization that there would be times, such as when he was injured, when he couldn't rely strictly on his great speed and agility. He couldn't always correct a mistake, such as taking the inside on a tight end while the play was going outside, by simply changing his direction and streaking to make the tackle.

"I knew I had to learn the techniques that most of the outside linebackers in the league use," Bennett says. "Until I came to the NFL, I had never really been coached. High school. College. As far as playing football, everything that I've always done was right. I never had anyone tell me, 'Hey, you're doing this wrong,' or whatever.

"I guess it was time that I got put in my place, as far as playing football."

Besides being more attentive to Corey's day-to-day instruction, which includes pre-practice drills on finer points such as footwork, Bennett also has accumulated more knowledge than ever about rushing the passer.

It began during an off-season conversation with defensive line coach Chuck Dickerson. Watching videotape, Dickerson noticed that Bennett had a "great upfield move," but little else. He offered to teach him, through training camp, a couple of additional moves.

Bennett readily accepted.

"He worked with me every day in training camp, and was willing to try things that he hadn't tried before," Dickerson recalls. "For instance, using a spin move. That's where you press a guy upfield really hard, lean on him until he pushes back, and when he pushes, you whip a circle right underneath him, turning your back to him and going after the quarterback.

"He had always been a speed-rusher. So I said, 'Look, speed is one thing. But think about what power is. Power is weight and speed put together. As quick as you are, you can be as powerful as any sonofagun in the league.' And that made sense to him. We started working on it, and he's using that very effectively now, too.

"Before, he'd just try to run upfield all the time and beat the blocker to the quarterback. Now, he'll get the guy running with him, and, all of a sudden, plant his outside foot, ram him right in the face with his helmet and hit his shoulders with his hands. He's going to try to lift that guy right up into the quarterback. And by pressing the tackle right back into the pocket, he makes the quarterback step into our other guy."

The "other guy," of course, is defensive end Bruce Smith. Even Smith would admit that several of the 19 sacks he has this season have been flushed his way by Bennett. During Smith's four-sack performance against Indianapolis last Sunday, Bennett twice served his teammate Jeff George on a platter.

Dickerson considers Bennett a major factor in the Bills' ranking third in the NFL with 39 sacks (Kansas City leads with 53, followed by the Los Angeles Raiders with 41).

"I came into camp with the right attitude," Bennett says. "My practice habits have been tremendous as far as I'm concerned, because I realized I had lacked a lot at practice in previous years, and I've made it a habit to practice well. And it's showing up on film. It might not show up in the stats, but, when I watch film and see myself forcing the guy out of the pocket, I think I'm doing a great job.

"If I get the hurries and they don't complete the pass or we get the interception, it doesn't matter if I don't get the sack. I used to be worried about getting the sack in order to make the Pro Bowl, because that's the stat people look at (in voting). But I figured, if I can't make it just on my natural ability and playing hard on Sunday, I don't deserve to make it, anyway.

"I was always trying to go out and perform up to the expectations that people had for me and kind of forgetting about myself. And what I'm doing now is playing to my own expectations. I think if I play well for myself, the rest will take care of itself."

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