The NFL

October 08, 2006

Just in Time

Depleted onoffense, the Patriots may have found their playmaker in rookie running backLaurence Maroney

FOR ALL thehighlights Patriots rookie running back Laurence Maroney generated in Sunday's38--13 win over the Bengals, there was one he missed out on. New England faceda 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 Dillongash 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 Patriotsjoked about that moment in the aftermath of the victory, but Maroney didn'tmind. If anything, he was happy to see Dillon get a touchdown and a win in thecity 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 onMonday. "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 morethan his part on Sunday. He reminded the critics predicting imminent doom forthe Pats that the three-time Super Bowl champs aren't dead yet. They may bestruggling with an anemic passing game. They may be feeling the collectiveimpact of several veteran departures. But New England is still 3--1, and itstill knows how to adjust to adversity better than any other team in theleague. The Patriots play to their strengths, as they always have, and Maroneyhas quickly emerged as an obvious one.

With Maroney andDillon 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 bluntstyle to batter defenders. Maroney offered a different look: darting cuts,explosive dashes and even a couple stiff-arms for good measure. "Corey is abruiser," Maroney says. "I like to make people miss and run around themif I can."

This running backrotation is exactly what the Patriots envisioned when they took Maroney withthe 21st pick in the 2006 draft. At 5'11" and 220 pounds, he's thePatriots' most dynamic runner since Curtis Martin, and under Dillon's wing hehas learned the NFL ropes quickly. The two have become close friends, andDillon has helped Maroney with his blocking, footwork and ability to readholes. Maroney doesn't mind splitting carries, either, having done much thesame in college at Minnesota with Marion Barber, now playing for theCowboys.

With Dillonturning 32 this month and fighting nagging injuries, Maroney is expected tobecome the Patriots' featured back in the near future. For now, they know thatkeeping their tag-team rushing attack working like it did against Cincy iscritical to their 2006 season. "They're like a one-two punch," says NewEngland strong safety Rodney Harrison. "When the bully gets tired, therabbit comes in. It's just huge to have a guy with Laurence's ability."

SEAHAWKSRECEIVERS

An Offense Up inthe Air

Not long afterjoining the Seahawks last month, Deion Branch felt comfortable enough to startshowing some leadership. As the team wrapped up a practice, the five-year vetcalled fellow wideouts Darrell Jackson, Bobby Engram and Nate Burleson togetherto thank them for making his first few days with Seattle easier than he hadexpected—everything from Burleson's recommending a barber shop to Engram'sstaying after practice to help him learn the Seahawks' version of the WestCoast offense. "I just appreciated them embracing me," says Branch,whose holdout had prompted New England to trade him, "because it easilycould've been a different story."

If the Seahawks(3--1) didn't recognize the value of such cohesiveness before last week, theycertainly understood it by the end of Sunday night's 37--6 loss to the Bears.Chicago dismantled a Seattle offense that was playing without Pro Bowl runningback and 2005 NFL MVP Shaun Alexander, who'll miss at least two more weeks witha broken bone in his left foot. The Seahawks gained only 230 yards, including153 through the air, and didn't score a touchdown; Matt Hasselbeck completed 16of 35 passes and was sacked five times. Without its big back, Seattle needs thepassing game running on all cylinders—as it was in a 42--30 win over the Giantson Sept. 24.

In that gameSeattle coach Mike Holmgren used four-receiver sets 17 times, and Hasselbeckthrew five touchdown passes (tying a franchise record) to four players: Jackson(two), Burleson, Engram and tight end Will Heller. But the Bears' relentlesspass rush prevented the Seahawks' aerial game from taking off. "We justcouldn't get into a rhythm," Burleson said after the game. "We're stillsearching for our identity and trying to figure out how to use everybody. Itmight take a while, but we'll get it going."

With fourstarter-quality wideouts, the Seahawks don't lack for weapons—or experience.Jackson is in his seventh season with the team, and Engram has been around forsix, so they're schooled in the disciplined route-running Holmgren demands.Burleson, a lanky, deceptively fast Seattle native who spent three seasons withthe Vikings, was an off-season pickup. The addition of Branch, who played fourseason with the Patriots and is the most explosive of the four, creates astrategic challenge for Holmgren: how to divvy up the touches on offense.

Ideally, all fourreceivers would rotate at different positions—each is comfortable playingflanker, split end or in the slot in Holmgren's offense—and that versatilityshould confuse opposing defenses while enabling Hasselbeck to determine thebest mismatches. In the Week 3 win over the Giants, the Seahawks kept New Yorkoff balance by using various four-wide combinations, which forced the Giantsinto nickel and dime defenses far more often than they wanted. The Bears,however, were able to counter Seattle's wide-open attack by pressuringHasselbeck with four down linemen and clogging the throwing lanes with sevendefenders dropped into coverage.

The Seahawkswon't soon face a unit as fierce as Chicago's (following a bye this weekend,they visit St. Louis and then host Minnesota), so they can work on making theiraerial game more consistent. Branch is keen on maintaining harmony—"I'm nothere to take 10 or 15 balls away from anybody," he says. Adds Burleson,"We had a lot of receivers in Minnesota, and there was enough food on thetable for everybody. We have the same attitude here."

Dispatches

Raiders widereceiver Jerry Porter has asked his agent, Joel Segal, to do whatever it takesto get him out of Oakland before the Oct. 17 trade deadline, even if it meansPorter (right) must give back part of his signing bonus. Porter, who is feudingwith Raiders coach Art Shell, hasn't dressed for a game this season. Shell iseven playing third-year receiver Johnnie Morant, who has one career reception,ahead of Porter.... Bills quarterback J.P. Losman's turnaround (64.9 passerrating in '05; 90.6 this year) is partly thanks to better footwork. "Wewanted him to slow down once the ball was snapped," says Buffaloquarterbacks coach Turk Schonert. "He was overstriding when he droppedback. His stride is shorter now, and his feet are underneath him."... ChadPennington's interception in the end zone during the Jets' 31--28 loss to Indywas his first on a red-zone possession in his seven-year career.

Read JeffriChadiha's Inside the NFL at SI.com/football.

PHOTODAVID KOHL/AP (MARONEY)HE'S THE MAN?
Maroney rushed for 125 yards and two scores in his breakout game.
PHOTOSTEVE GRAYSON/WIREIMAGE.COM (MARONEY)[See caption above.] PHOTOKIRBY LEE/WIREIMAGE.COM (PORTER) PHOTOTANNEN MAURY/EPACORPS ISSUE
Working Branch into the attack is a key to the Seahawks' short-term success.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)