Continuing the feature started yesterday by grading the New England Patriots pass offense, I will now give my final regular season grade to the ground attack. The season was marked by a breakout second year for Stevan Ridley, in which he placed himself among the league’s feature backs. Fellow second-year back Shane Vereen and undrafted rookie free agent Brandon Bolden showed us plenty as change-of-pace backs in the back of the rotation, and Danny Woodhead continues to hold a special place in our hearts as a secret weapon and, just maybe, the new Kevin Faulk.
New England Patriots Run Offense Grade: A
Let’s start with the man who starts it all, and that is Stevan Ridley. The big issue with him has always been fumbling, and he had two fumbles this season. After both of them, some of us freaked out a little too much. The reaction after the second fumble of the season was especially pronounced, and I think it was well-deserved. The fumble itself served as a wake-up call to Ridley, because the turnover was one of the reasons why the Patriots put themselves in too big of a hole against the San Francisco 49ers. After that fumble, Bill Belichick once again showed faith in Ridley by not benching him and Ridley bounced back with two solid games to close out the season.
With Ridley, the fumbles are a result of less ball security and, mainly, running with a higher pad level in order to increase his agility. There’s a bit of a trade-off with Ridley, since the risk for losing the football is smaller than the reward of making a move that gains an additional chunk of yardage. However, the impact of fumbling the football is clearly worse, so I’m sure we’d all take the added ball security. It pays to keep things in perspective, and the “perspective” here is that Ridley only fumbled the ball twice all season and bounced back in the game after each fumble. Now that’s maturity you often don’t see in a second-year RB.
You also don’t see many second-year running backs rushing for 1,263 yards and entrenching themselves as one of the top ten backs in the league. Ridley is a workhorse, as seen by the 290 carries and the solid 4.4 yards per carry average. He can beat you inside and outside with strength and agility, and Ridley will continue to be one of the top ten backs in this league for the foreseeable future. Most of the credit should go to him for the Patriots finishing seventh in rushing yards, because he was seventh in the league in rushing yards.
But give some credit to the other guys as well, because Danny Woodhead helped sustain drives. There is no better backup running back in the league (I don’t even think a starter does this better either) than Woodhead at getting the needed yards for every down and distance. We’ve seen him keep drives alive (Seattle Seahawks game) in extremely difficult situations, and you can see that Tom Brady, Bill Belichick, and the Patriots coaching staff trust Woodhead to a high degree. His biggest impact came as a receiver, but he also led the league in “success rate” (yes, that’s a stat based on a player’s ability to get sufficient yards per down and distance) and was the Pats second-leading rusher.
Brandon Bolden led the team with an average of 4.9 yards per carry, but running backs with less carries usually have a YPC that deviates further from the league average of 4.2 (great sample size usually causes players to gradually regress to the mean). That is an outstanding average, and it’s hard to think that Bolden was a UDFA out of Ole Miss. Man, aren’t you glad the Pats picked up him and decided to keep him?
Shane Vereen is a nice, explosive back in the mix, but I think he is the least valuable of the four. That’s not to say he is useless by any means, because he is a key change-of-pace back. I love his explosiveness around the edge, but he needs to be used sparingly and against defenses that struggle against outside contain. Once he gets into the open field, he is extremely difficult to stop. The problem is that you have to get him into the open field, which is why the Patriots pick their matchups wisely when they use him. He is a New York Jets killer, and that 83-yard touchdown scamper down the left sideline was a thing of beauty and the prime reason why Rex Ryan has recurring night terrors of Vereen.
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