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Maroney making strides for Patriots

Laurence Maroney hopes for the same success he had in Cincinnati last year: 125 yards, 2 TDs. Laurence Maroney hopes for the same success he had in Cincinnati last year: 125 yards, 2 TDs. (BARRY CHIN/GLOBE STAFF)

FOXBOROUGH - Kelley Washington was on the opposite sideline when Laurence Maroney went wild in his best game as a pro.

He remembers how Paul Brown Stadium was buzzing Oct. 1, 2006, a day on which the Bengals - 3-0 at the time - were expected to roar past the depleted Patriots. Yet after a 38-13 New England win in which Maroney gained 125 yards on 15 carries and added two touchdowns and two bruising stiff-arms, Washington recalled the discussion in the somber Bengals locker room.

"The whole team was talking about how good he was," he said. "As offensive guys, we didn't know exactly who he was. By the end, everyone knew."

Washington is now a teammate of Maroney's, and one year to the day of Maroney's dynamic performance, the Patriots will return to Cincinnati to face the Bengals Monday. While some might have viewed Maroney's dazzling effort as a springboard to something special, the 22-year-old has not matched the effort since.

Maroney produced some electric kickoff returns last season, but didn't hit the 100-yard rushing mark again until last week's 103-yard outing against the Bills, going 15 games without a triple-digit performance.

He hurt his ribs in December, which seemed to limit his decisiveness and confidence down the stretch, and underwent offseason shoulder surgery, remaining here so he could devote himself to conditioning and rehab work.

Maroney is now battling a groin injury, which limited him in practice yesterday.

But Maroney has made strides, according to his fellow running backs, who point to more than just the rushing performance (his 252 rushing yards rank seventh in the AFC and 13th in the NFL).

An example came in the second quarter of last Sunday's 38-7 win when quarterback Tom Brady connected with Donté Stallworth on a 28-yard pass along the left sideline. The play wouldn't have been possible had Maroney - who lined up as a single back behind Brady and was part of a play-action fake - not correctly identified his assignment to block a blitzer to the right.

For running backs in the Patriots' system, picking up the blitz carries as much importance as carrying the ball.

"He did his job on that play, and we never thought he couldn't do what he did, but he's putting his whole game together now," said running back Kevin Faulk, one of the team's seven captains. "He's doing a great job getting a feel for it, not really second-guessing, knowing what to do."

On the blitz pickup, Maroney not only stopped the progress of defensive back Kiwaukee Thomas, but made him pay with a physical hit.

"The first thing was that he read the blitz," said running back Sammy Morris. "I guess the next step after knowing what to do is being physical at the point, and he did the job well."

But that physical approach appeared to be inconsistent when Maroney carried the ball in the first two games, as he gained 72 yards against the Jets and 77 against the Chargers. At times, he would dance behind the line of scrimmage instead of hitting the hole right away. Maroney seemed to be more decisive against the Bills.

Yet coach Bill Belichick explained earlier this week on WEEI that Maroney's style might have been more a result of the contrast in defensive systems the Patriots were facing.

Because the Jets and Chargers played a two-gap style out of a 3-4 alignment - in which they were reading the runner and not aggressively shooting gaps - Belichick said it changed the way in which a runner needed to attack. More patience was required to help set up the blocks.

The Bills, on the other hand, penetrated and got into gaps out of their 4-3 set. That made it clearer where the openings were, and the runner needed to hit those more quickly.

The Bengals play a similar style to the Bills, so it could be another big rushing day for Maroney. Then again, the Patriots would appear to be just as pleased to see a solid, no-frills effort.

"I think the biggest thing for Laurence is to keep working on his consistency," Belichick said. "I think we've all seen him make plays out there and do things well. It's like any other player, just being able to do it consistently, time after time."

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

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