Stevan Ridley is ready for his star turn.
The Patriots running game entered the post-BenJarvus Green-Ellis era with questions, but three games into the 2012 preseason, it’s clear that the LSU product has done what he’s needed to do so win the job of lead back. While there were some missteps in Friday’s 30-28 loss to the Buccaneers in Tampa (click here for the full recap), including missing a key assignment in blitz pickup, overall, it was a good night for Ridley.
The 23-year-old ran the ball 16 times for 87 yards and added a touchdown against the Bucs. But it wasn’t so much the yardage as the way he ran -- hard, chunk yardage -- that was impressive. Known as more of a speed guy last season that occasionally veered close to Laurence Maroney’s style (too soon?), on Friday, he displayed a toughness that was impressive.
“He’s been a strong runner since the day he came in here, and he’s continued to do that,” said quarterback Tom Brady, who played the bulk of the first three quarters. “When [Ridley] gets the opportunity, it seems like he’s doing a real good job. So that was great to see.”
He was the most consistent offensive presence of the evening for the Patriots, and his best run of the night was a 29-yarder that featured some nice blocking from guard Donald Thomas, tight end Rob Gronkowski and wide receiver Deion Branch. Sprung free, Ridley burst around right end and into the secondary before being ridden out of bounds inside the Tampa 10. Ridley later closed out the drive with a one-yard plunge to make it 14-7 early in the second -- he accounted for 43 of the 81 yards on that drive. It was the nicest and most consistent offensive series on the night for New England.
Ridley’s performance to this point in camp and the preseason, combined with the fact that fellow running back Shane Vereen limped off in the first half with a foot injury (he did not return) pretty much clinches the fact that he’ll be the No. 1 option on the ground when the regular season opens on Sept. 9 against the Titans.
Here are nine other things we learned Friday in Tampa.
THERE STILL ARE PROBLEMS WITH NEW ENGLAND’S PASS PROTECTION
The Patriots pass blocking struggled at times throughout the game, as Brady took two sacks in the first half and was knocked around pretty good by the Tampa Bay pass rush. However, the breakdowns in protection were not just the result of the offensive line -- while there appeared to be some issues up front, there were problems all over. The Bucs were able to get consistent pressure with blitzes that New England struggled to pick up on, and were also able to generate a pass rush off the corners.
The first big hit came on New England’s second offensive series when Brady was blasted by defensive end Michael Bennett. To be fair, that sack was probably on the quarterback instead of right tackle Marcus Cannon, as Brady held the ball for an awful long time, leading to a coverage sack. The second sack came in the second quarter when there was a complete breakdown of protection on the left side. On the play, Ridley failed to pick up the blitz as Adam Hayward sprung free and brought down Brady for an 11-yard loss.
The Patriots were able to cut down on pressure in the second half. Brady got the ball out quicker, and the return of prime tight ends like Rob Gronkowski, Aaron Hernandez and Daniel Fells (who was making his first on-field appearance) helped shore things up.
In addition, left guard Logan Mankins saw his first action of the preseason, and his return certainly had an effect on the play of left tackle Nate Solder. And some of the credit for Ridley’s nice night on the ground has to go to the offensive line -- as a team, the Patriots had a season-high 168 rushing yards on 31 carries, an average of more than five yards per carry.
But asked if he was surprised about the lack of cohesion on the offensive line, Belichick said it wasn’t just the line that was at fault.
“I don’t think we did anything very well offensively,” Belichick said of an offense that went three-and-out on four of its seven first-half drives. “So yeah, I was surprised that we couldn’t do anything.”
RYAN MALLETT IMPRESSED AGAIN
At first glance, the only offensive player who might have earned a positive grade from Belichick was backup quarterback Ryan Mallett, who came in in relief of Brady in the fourth quarter and managed to engineer a pair of very nice scoring drives.
It should be taken with a grain of salt because it came against Tampa’s second- and third-string defense, but the second-year quarterback out of Arkansas finished 7-for-13 for 66 yards and a pair of touchdown passes. He was poised in the pocket, did a very nice job with his decision-making, deftly avoided Tampa rushers on more than one occasion and completed catchable balls. He did have a pair of TD passes, but his best connection might have come when he completed a 10-yarder to Donte Stallworth on a fourth-and-1 situation in the fourth quarter.
“I thought he did a good job with the opportunities he had,” Belichick said of Mallett, who was the first backup quarterback out of the chute after Brady. “That was a good throw he made on 4th and 1 on the comeback. He made some other good throws on the last two drives. I mean the game was out of hand at that point, but he did what he could do when he had the opportunity for it.”
Here’s one Mallett breakdown, courtesy of our pal Ian Logue of Patsfans.com: On first down against the Bucs, he was 2-for-6 for 12 yards and a touchdown; second down, he was 2-for-4 for 15 yards and a touchdown; on third down, he was 2-for-2 for 29 yards.
TOM BRADY HAS FAITH
The quarterback finished 13-for-20 for 127 yards, with one touchdown and one interception. As we’ve said already, the quarterback was knocked around pretty good throughout the night, taking a couple of serious shots early on.
Probably the most severe one was the first sack of the night, which came on New England’s second offensive series when Brady was blasted by defensive end Michael Bennett. However, after the game, Brady said that sack wasn’t the fault of the offensive line.
“It was just hold[ing] on to the ball too long,” Brady said. “Brandon [Lloyd] was starting to work away from the coverage and they just got me as I was throwing the ball. Have to try to eliminate those and try to eliminate turnovers, they certainly kill us. Those just aren’t very good plays.”
Despite the fact that he took a pretty good pounding, Brady said he still has confidence in his offensive line.
“I sure do, yeah, of course,” he said. “I’ve got confidence in everybody. It’s just a matter of us getting out there and playing and playing together. There’s too many times where we’re one step forward and two steps back. When you’re not in a rhythm offensively it’s hard to produce a lot of points. We just weren’t in a great rhythm obviously in the first half.”
Brady’s quarter-by-quarter breakdown, courtesy of Logue: On first down, he was 4-for-5 for 37 yards and one touchdown; on second down, he was 6-for-9 for 61 yards; on third down, he was 3-for-6 for 29 yards and one interception.
TOM BRADY CAN PULL A GEORGE COSTANZA
Overall, it was an uneven effort for Brady and the Patriots’ offense, but he saved his best for his final series against Tampa, pulling together an eight-play, 84-yard scoring drive at the end of the third quarter and leaving on a high note.
The capper was a 16-yard touchdown pass from Brady to Rob Gronkowski (his first touchdown catch of the season ... which was not punctuated by a Gronkowski Spike) which was one of the most well executed offensive plays New England had this preseason. The protection was very good, Brady had a clean pocket, the quarterback stepped up and delivered a great ball to a spot where only Gronkowski could make the catch, and the big fella used his size to box out the defenders and make the grab.
“We obviously got off to a slow start but we played a little bit better in the second half. But we really need to string it together for four quarters in order to, you know, beat good teams on the road. Certainly have a lot of work to do. We’ve got an important week coming up this week and we’ll try and get better.”
WE’RE NOT SURE WHAT TO MAKE OF JULIAN EDELMAN AND DONTE’ STALLWORTH
The Patriots were without Wes Welker on Friday night against the Bucs, which theoretically should have paved the way for Edelman to have a nice game. But after being targeted nine times through the first two preseason games (the second-highest total on the team), the former college quarterback and part-time slot receiver didn’t catch a single pass on Friday against the Bucs. A whopping 11 members of the New England offense caught passes on Friday night -- it’s a surprise that Edelman wasn’t one of them.
And then, there was Stallworth. Stallworth has also seen a lot of action through the first two games (he’s been targeted eight times), but the veteran wide receiver played sparingly on Friday night, surprising given the fact that Jabar Gaffney wasn’t in the lineup all week. Stallworth did get into the game late in the second half -- he made one of the best catches of the night when he hauled in a 10-yard completion from Mallett and had three catches for 40 yards -- but he didn’t a chance to run with the starters.
JEFF DEMPS IS UNIQUE
After just a couple of days in camp, it’s clear the Patriots have a unique physical specimen in Demps, the former Olympic silver medalist who joined them late last week. Demps didn’t get into the game until the third quarter -- his first action on the field came as a kick returner. It wasn’t much of a start, bringing it back to the New England 16. (He ended up with two kick returns for an average of 22 yards, as well as one punt return for 16 yards.)
However, in a bit of a surprise, he also got a healthy amount of reps as a running back, and the Patriots used him in several ways -- screens, change-of-pace work, swing routes out of the backfield. He’s not going to reinvent the position (he drew a false start on his first snap as a pro) but he certainly made an auspicious pro debut. In the end, he finished with three carries for 41 yards, including a 29-yarder in the fourth quarter where he busted through the first wave of defenders and almost reached the goal line.
“You know, he got quite a bit of an opportunity tonight,” Brady said of Demps. “Coach put him in a position to make some plays out there both in the return game and at running back. It was pretty amazing to go from what he was training for for the last 6 or 8 months of his life, and to come in here and put pads on and do the same thing. So it’s really a credit to his hard work and his mental toughness.”
It’s clear Demps will claim a spot on the 53-man roster -- the financial investment and the fact that they beat out so many other suitors leads you to believe that the Patriots will wait for him to develop if they need to. It’s just a matter of whom he’ll replace on the roster.
THE PATRIOTS EXPERIMENTED WITH SOME DIFFERENT COMBOS IN THE SECONDARY
Without Patrick Chung -- who got dinged up on Monday against the Eagles -- the Patriots went with a variety of different looks in the secondary. One guy who benefitted from Chung’s absence was Nate Ebner, who was a big part of the New England defense early on, working into the rotation mostly on third down packages. The former Ohio State rugby star, a sixth-round pick of the Patriots this spring, ended up with five tackles, including some nice hits early. Fellow rookie Tavon Wilson also saw a lot of time, and like Ebner, there were some struggled, but ultimately, it was a positive night for the rookie out of Virginia.
Another defensive back who saw a lot of reps was corner Marquice Cole, who almost got his hands on a pair of interceptions while working in the slot. (He tied with Ebner and Brandon Spikes for most tackles on the night with five.) Cole brings good special teams value -- he was one of the best special teamers’ on the New York roster last year -- and if he can continue to build on the success he had Friday night, he will certainly be in the mix for the final cornerback spot.
CHANDLER JONES WASN’T QUIET
While it wasn’t the overwhelming performance we have seen at times this preseason, rookie defensive end Chandler Jones had one highly entertaining sequence in the second half where he was the most dominant player on the field.
Jones, who started for the third consecutive preseason game, was relatively silent over the first half, but in Tampa Bay’s first offensive series of the third quarter, Jones started with a tackle that held Bucs’ running back Doug Martin to one yard. He was able to get good pressure on Tampa quarterback Josh Freeman on the next two pass plays, and he followed that up with a sack of Freeman -- despite the fact that he was held by left tackle Donald Penn on the play. (It was the third holding penalty Jones has drawn in three games this preseason.)
WHEN IT COMES TO THE PATRIOTS IN THE PRESEASON, THREE ISN’T THE MAGIC NUMBER
Over the last eight years, the Patriots are 4-4 in the third preseason game of the year, with two losses the last two seasons by a combined score of 70-45. (In that same span, the franchise has won 27 regular-season games and made a Super Bowl appearance.) While the rest of the league considers it the final dress rehearsal -- and a good indicator of where they are as a team heading into the regular season -- New England simply shrugs at convention and says, “Meh. We’ll do what we’re going to do.”
In the third preseason game of 2011, the Patriots were completely vaporized by the Lions, 34-10. Brady was beat up and the offensive line was battered pretty well by Ndamukong Suh and the rest of the Detroit defense. (In another poke in the eye of conventional football wisdom, Belichick followed up the Detroit game by playing his starters in the fourth preseason game of the year -- that one coming against the Giants. The final preseason contest has traditionally been the domain of the backups and others who are on the bubble.) Of course, New England was just fine: it went out and posted a 13-3 mark on the way to an AFC title and another Super Bowl appearance.
In the interest of deja vu, Brady was asked if Friday’s game reminded him at all of last year’s preseason loss to the Lions.
“No, they’re all a bit different,” he said. “I just think the point is we have to do things a lot better. It’s every position, it’s every player, we all have to do better job at our job. And if we all individually do that collectively, we’ll be better at it. So hopefully we can put together a good week and go down to the Giants and play a good game and get us prepared for our opener.”