With an offense constructed around the passing attack of Tom Brady, his weapon Wes Welker, and dynamic duo of Rob Gronkowski —a byproduct of a Cold War experiment—and Aaron Hernandez at tight end, the New England Patriots running game has never felt more unimportant during the Belichick era.
That’s why I’ve made the obvious choice to pump the tires of Stevan Ridley, one of five Patriot running backs.
Ridley has had a solid, if not unspectacular first year in the NFL. The third round pick out of LSU beat out the higher drafted second round pick Shane Vereen on the depth chart to begin the season, but saw no action in the season opener against the Miami Dolphins.
After a couple carries in Week 2, Ridley opened some eyes, averaging seven yards a carry on six attempts as one of the few bright spots in New England’s first loss of the season, to the Buffalo Bills. He followed that with a season and obvious career-high 97 yards in a Week 4 victory over the Oakland Raiders, scoring his first career touchdown on a beautiful 33 yard run.
That would be the highlight of Ridley’s rookie campaign, as he was used sparingly in the next nine weeks. But over the last three weeks he’s been able to run off rushing totals of 65, 64, and finally 81 yards. In all three, Ridley was given double-digits in carries, and became the Patriots most effective back to close out the regular season.
It’s been five years since Bill Belichick changed the offensive philosophy of his team, moving from the methodical running and short passing game to the high powered passing system you see today.
The Patriots have gone 2-3 in the postseason since the switch, and coincidentally enough, their last playoff victory came the last time they had a 100 yard rusher—Laurence Maroney with 122 yards against the San Diego Chargers in the 2007 AFC Championship Game.
This is not to say the ground game will be the deciding factor of this season. The final fate of the 2011 Patriots rests on the arm of Saint Thomas, but an effective running game can make him that much more dangerous.
BenJarvus Green-Ellis took a step back from his break out season of a year ago, and while effective in goal line and short yardage situations, his overall ceiling is limited. Ridley already provides a greater “big play” threat.
In New England's 41-23 victory over the Denver Broncos in their first go around, Ridley led the Pats in rushing (65 yards on 11 carries), and as proven yesterday, Denver's defense can be susceptible to the rush. In the Broncos 29-23 win over the Pittsburgh Steelers on Wild Card Weekend, backup Ike Redman gained 121 yards as he shredded the Broncos rush defense on 7.1 yards per attempt.
If you were to rank the importance of players on the New England offense, Ridley's might not immediately come to mind. But if a successful run at a fourth Super Bowl title is to be accomplished, my bet would be on Ridley's name becoming more prominent.