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Just in Time
FOR ALL the highlights Patriots rookie running back Laurence Maroney generated in Sunday's 38--13 win over the Bengals, there was one he missed out on. New England faced a first-and-goal at the Cincinnati one-yard line early in the fourth quarter, when Maroney, who had been on the sideline watching former Bengal Corey Dillon gash his erstwhile club during the possession, prepared to spell his teammate. But as Maroney began jogging toward the huddle, he saw Dillon waving him back. Not this time, Dillon seemed to be saying. This one is mine. Maroney retreated, and Dillon promptly punched in for the touchdown.
The Patriots joked about that moment in the aftermath of the victory, but Maroney didn't mind. If anything, he was happy to see Dillon get a touchdown and a win in the city where he'd spent the first seven seasons of his 10 year career. Besides, Maroney didn't need the extra work. He was well on his way to a 125-yard day, his first 100-yard performance in the NFL, and he already had two touchdowns. "I knew it was a game that meant a lot to Corey," Maroney said on Monday. "He didn't talk about it much, but I knew he wanted this real bad. I just wanted to do my part to help."
Maroney did more than his part on Sunday. He reminded the critics predicting imminent doom for the Pats that the three-time Super Bowl champs aren't dead yet. They may be struggling with an anemic passing game. They may be feeling the collective impact of several veteran departures. But New England is still 3--1, and it still knows how to adjust to adversity better than any other team in the league. The Patriots play to their strengths, as they always have, and Maroney has quickly emerged as an obvious one.
With Maroney and Dillon leading the way, New England rushed for 236 yards against Cincinnati. Dillon played the role of the heavy (17 carries for 67 yards), using his blunt style to batter defenders. Maroney offered a different look: darting cuts, explosive dashes and even a couple stiff-arms for good measure. "Corey is a bruiser," Maroney says. "I like to make people miss and run around them if I can."
This running back rotation is exactly what the Patriots envisioned when they took Maroney with the 21st pick in the 2006 draft. At 5'11" and 220 pounds, he's the Patriots' most dynamic runner since Curtis Martin, and under Dillon's wing he has learned the NFL ropes quickly. The two have become close friends, and Dillon has helped Maroney with his blocking, footwork and ability to read holes. Maroney doesn't mind splitting carries, either, having done much the same in college at Minnesota with Marion Barber, now playing for the Cowboys.
With Dillon turning 32 this month and fighting nagging injuries, Maroney is expected to become the Patriots' featured back in the near future. For now, they know that keeping their tag-team rushing attack working like it did against Cincy is critical to their 2006 season. "They're like a one-two punch," says New England strong safety Rodney Harrison. "When the bully gets tired, the rabbit comes in. It's just huge to have a guy with Laurence's ability."
An Offense Up in the Air