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Running low on backs?

Maroney's injury may increase roles

FOXBOROUGH -- It was a simple warm-up drill during yesterday's practice, players lifting their feet as they quickly raced over bags placed on the ground.

Patriots rookie running back Laurence Maroney usually attacks the drill with vigor, light on his feet as he glides through. But yesterday was different, Maroney stepping carefully over each obstacle at limited speed, a clear sign that he's still ailing from a back injury sustained in the first quarter of last Sunday's 28-21 victory over the Lions.

Maroney, who was leaning into a third-down run when Lions safety Terrence Holt surged into a gap and rocked him off his feet, is officially questionable for Sunday's game against the Dolphins, giving him a 50-50 chance of playing.

The rest of the Patriots' running backs began their week of preparation realizing that they could be without their dynamic threat. Maroney missed a portion of team drills during yesterday's practice.

"You'd lose a playmaker," fullback Heath Evans said. "But as you've seen, people always seem to step up, whether it's getting me off the street [as a free agent in 2005], or Corey [Dillon] getting more carries and having three touchdowns against Detroit. The coaches expect it of us, and as a group we take pride in being able to cover the slack."

The slack figures to be spread around among Dillon, Kevin Faulk, Patrick Pass, and Evans, with Dillon assuming the lead role.

The question, then, is how much the hard-charging, 32-year-old Dillon can handle.

In 2004, he averaged 21.5 carries a game as a central piece in the Patriots' Super Bowl championship. This year, he's just shy of 12 rushes a game, and it appears unlikely that number will increase considerably even if Maroney is sidelined.

"I think all of our backs are going to play and contribute as they did last week and as they have all season," said coach Bill Belichick, before adding that Dillon "is more than capable of carrying whatever load we give him."

In recent weeks, Dillon's load has taken on a distinct form, as his carries have seemingly been limited because of a lingering arm injury -- initially sustained in Week 3 against the Broncos -- that has been reaggravated at times over the course of the season. In the team's last five games, Dillon has rushed 13, 11, 12, 11, and 9 times, and it hasn't been uncommon for him to signal to the sideline after a run, taking himself out of the game so he stays fresh.

Through 12 games, Dillon has totaled 575 yards on 141 carries, often rotating series by series with Maroney, who has a team-high 624 yards on 155 carries. Dillon has been especially effective in short-yardage, goal-line situations, scoring 10 touchdowns and helping the Patriots to a No. 2 ranking in red-zone offense (30 touchdowns, 47 trips). He has lost two fumbles this season.

When Maroney left last Sunday's game in the first quarter and didn't return, the Patriots first turned to a combination of Dillon and Pass, with Dillon carrying six times and Pass two in the first half. Of the six carries by running backs in the pass-dominated second half, Dillon had four, Pass one, and Evans one.

Faulk, who shone as part of the team's two-minute offense last Sunday, would also be a candidate for more running work on early downs if Maroney is sidelined.

"It doesn't matter if my role increases, but now that Laurence is banged up a little bit, that's what we're here for if needed," Faulk said.

Meanwhile, Pass carried for the first time last Sunday in what was his second game back after returning from the physically unable to perform list. One of his attempts resulted in a lost fumble, which he said yesterday was a play in which he "got careless with the ball."

Pass was prepping to take on a larger role if needed against the Dolphins.

"I'm always ready," he said. "One of the things I pride myself on is that I'm always ready to roll no matter what the situation is."

Through 12 games, Maroney has emerged as the Patriots' most productive skill position player; his 812 total yards from scrimmage (18 receptions for 188 yards and one touchdown) easily lead the team.

Faulk has been impressed with what Maroney has done with the ball this season, starting in practice.

"It's been his ability to adapt to everything, it's not easy here," Faulk said. "They expect a lot from you here and he's come a long way."

How far the Patriots might have to go without Maroney remains to be seen. Yesterday, the team's other running backs were readying for the possibility of more work.

"We're competitors," Faulk said. "We want the ball."

Mike Reiss can be reached at mreiss@globe.com.

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