CINCINNATI - For all the attention lavished on Tom Brady and Randy Moss, the Patriot offense has been remarkably balanced this season.
In their first three games, the Patriots ran 107 times and passed 88. But that balance was in danger of being upset when top-shelf running back Laurence Maroney sat out last night against the Bengals with a groin injury.
No need to worry, though, as Sammy Morris filled the void while helping the Patriots remain undefeated with a 34-13 victory.
Morris rushed for 117 yards and a touchdown on 21 carries. He set up another touchdown with a 49-yard jaunt late in the first quarter and scored on a 7-yard run midway through the third to push the lead to 24-7.
"The way I prepared in the offseason prepared me for that," said Morris.
Morris just missed surpassing his career highs of 25 carries and 123 rushing yards, both set last December when Morris powered the Dolphins to a 21-0 victory over the Patriots.
It was that performance that caught the eye of the New England brass and led it to pursue Morris when he hit the open market this past offseason as an unrestricted free agent.
"Sammy does a good job," coach Bill Belichick said. "He's got good balance, he's tough. I think he made some nice cuts out there. He stayed tight with the blocks and didn't try to make something if it wasn't there. He made a lot of positive yardage."
The biggest chunk of that yardage came on the Patriots' third possession.
On first and 10 from the New England 49-yard line, Morris followed the lead block of fullback Heath Evans through the right side of the line before bouncing outside. He was ultimately tripped up by safety Madieu Williams at the 2.
"Heath led me through there," Morris said. "I just had to make a move on one guy to get to the edge."
Three plays later, the Patriots were in the end zone when Brady connected with moonlighting tight end Mike Vrabel on a 1-yard scoring strike to make it 10-0 with 51 seconds left in the first quarter.
Morris showed his explosiveness on that long run. He showed his endurance during a different sort of long run midway through the second quarter.
The Patriots handed off to Morris on eight straight plays during a 12-play, 62-yard drive that was capped by a 7-yard touchdown toss to Moss. The runs were for 6, 7, 2, 4, 5, 8, and 6 yards before the linebacker-depleted Bengals finally held Morris to no gain on the eighth carry.
"At that point, it's a matter of conditioning and just trying to fight through it," Morris said.
Morris didn't so much fight his way into the end zone as high-stepped it in from 7 yards out on the Patriots' opening possession of the second half. That capped an eight-play, 81-yard drive and extended the advantage to 24-10.
It was Morris's third touchdown of the season.
"Sammy is an excellent back and one of the more underrated guys in the league," said receiver Wes Welker, who played with Morris in Miami the last three seasons. "He has great patience and a great burst."
All told, the Patriots rushed for 173 yards on 34 carries.
"All our backs run hard and they all did a great job of just hitting the holes," said tight end Benjamin Watson, who had a key block on Morris's TD. "But we knew Sammy was going to have to carry the burden tonight and he did a great job."