FOXBORO -- Good things happen when the Patriots run the football.
On Sunday against the Dolphins, New England rushed for 152 yards on 37 carries as a team, for an average of 4.1 yards per carry, and that ability to move the ball on the ground consistently played a sizable role in the tale of two halves that was the 27-17 come-from-behind win over Miami at Gillette Stadium.
Sunday marked the fourth game in which the Patriots topped 140 rushing yards as a team, and they are 4-0 in those games. (By way of comparison, they had six games last year where they went over the 140-yard mark as a team.) Overall, the Patriots are 5-0 when they top 100 rushing yards.
Against the Dolphins, Stevan Ridley had 14 carries for 79 yards and a touchdown, LeGarrette Blount had 11 carries for 46 yards and Brandon Bolden added eight carries for 22 yards.
“Those three guys have just shared the load -- and sometimes it’s been a little more of one guy than the other and it’s kind of moved around,” Patriots coach Bill Belichick said of the New England running game. “But they’ve all contributed, they’ve all played well and we’ve needed all of them. It’s a good group. They work well together -- they do a good job. And like I said, we’ve needed them all the way through and we’ll continue to need them.”
While the Patriots have needed all of them, they’ve really needed Ridley. In truth, while New England is a better team when it runs the ball, the Patriots are a very good team when Ridley is the one doing the work. The third-year back out of LSU -- who was nailed to the bench for some reason for the duration of the first quarter as New England struggled to find any sort of offensive consistency -- ended up averaging 5.6 yards per carry, and ended up playing a key role for a running game that was big when it came to closing out the Dolphins down the stretch.
In fact, on Sunday it was Ridley and the running game that helped provide some offensive spark to a lifeless offense. The Dolphins held a 17-3 edge with just over 10 minutes left in the third, but a missed 46-yard field goal from Miami kicker Caleb Sturgis opened the door for the Patriots. Ridley helped to kick it down. He got things started with a 23-yard run up the gut on the next play, and four plays later, the Patriots had their first touchdown of the day.
Ultimately, the Patriots ran the ball a season-high 37 times, with 22 carries for 111 yards in the second half, as they carved out quality yardage on the ground late, controlling the tempo and imposing their will on the Dolphins. The Patriots scored 24 unanswered points, and a large part of it was because Ridley had 56 yards of his 79 yards in the second half. During the 17-point third quarter, Ridley carried five times for 44 yards, an average of 8.8 yards per carry.
The second-half running attack against Miami stands in sharp contrast to the losses against the Jets (two carries as a team over the last seven-plus minutes and into overtime) and Bengals (six carries as a team in the second half), games where the Patriots abandon the run. In particular, Ridley’s 23-yarder showed that this time around, things were going to be different.
Did he think that was the run that got things going?
“I’d be lying if I said I didn’t. It’s a spark that came from it. I think that was just the boulder that our offensive line had to push and roll over,” he said. “Once we got that big run going, it helped the offense to come in there and set up the pass. For us, that’s what we try to do every week -- be balanced in our attack.”
Last season, Ridley ran for 1,263 yards, averaging 4.4 yards per carry -- one of the best performances of any back in franchise history under the age of 25. But since he stumbled out of the gate this year with the forgettable fumble in the opener, he’s been something of a forgotten man: Through eight games in 2012, he had 156 touches (150 rushes, six catches). This year, through eight games, he’s at 98 touches (92 carries, six catches).
Ridley wasn’t on the injury report all week, but sat out the entire first quarter Sunday and a sizable portion of the second while his teammates struggled to find any sort of offensive consistency. Sitting a 1,000-yard running back at the start of a game seems a little like going into a boxing match with one hand tied behind your back, especially against a divisional opponent that is strictly average when it comes to stopping the run. (When asked why Ridley was sitting to start the game, Belichick alluded to the fact that the Patriots “do what we think is best to win.” I’m not sure the last time doing “what you think is best to win” involved keeping a 1,200-yard back on the sidelines while your offense struggles, but OK.)
For his part, Ridley was OK with the idea of coming off the bench Sunday.
“This has been for … what, two or three weeks now?” replied Ridley, who said he wasn’t benched. “I’ve been on the bench to start the game the last two or three games. Like I said, we have a very unselfish group. Whatever the coaches feel the best move for us to win the game and start the game, that’s how we go with it. No matter what people might think, I just stick with my team. I’m a team player, and however they use me, that’s how they use me.
“Coach just picked who he wanted to start the game, and that’s who he went with,” he said with a shrug. “Last week I really wasn’t in there in the first quarter. This week I wasn’t in there in the first quarter. A few other weeks I haven’t been in there. It is what it is. I know these coaches are just trying to win every game we can. Whoever they start the game with is who they start it with. Really, I care more about finishing it with a win than who starts it, because it doesn’t matter who starts if you don’t end with a W at the end of the day.”
The idea of having someone (or a singular position group) other than Brady carry the offense through an extended stretch would once be considered football sacrilege. But when you consider the state of the New England offense (Brady submitted one of the worst passing games of his career against the Dolphins), relying on the running game would make a lot of sense, at least until Rob Gronkowski and Danny Amendola get back to where they need to be.
Ultimately, it’s not known if the numbers in the ground game will turn out to be anything more than a one-game spike or serve as a portent of things to come. If it’s more of the latter than the former, Ridley, who has become the de facto chairman of the running-back-by-committee, says that he and the rest of the crew is up for the challenge.
Like Belichick, Ridley knows that they’ll be needed sooner rather than later.
“This team is going through a lot of changes -- a lot of guys in and out. But one thing that has been consistent is the running back group. We’ve been together since camp,” Ridley said. “We’ve had Shane [Vereen], who has fallen out, but we’ve had guys who have stepped up. I think that’s the biggest thing for us -- we just have to be a strong point for this team. When they call our number, we have to be a strong point for this team. When they call our number, we have to go out there and make positive plays.”
Here are nine other things we learned about the Patriots on Sunday.
SOMETHING IS WRONG WITH TOM BRADY’S HAND
The quarterback said after the game that his right hand was “perfect,” but screencaps that circulated during and after the game showed some swelling. He appeared to struggle with touch throughout the contest -- particularly early on -- and so it would seem to make sense that it had something to do with the hand or fingers. (For those of you late to the party, he was photographed at a team event over the weekend with two of the fingers on his throwing hand taped together.) Over the first two quarters, he was a miserable 6-for-8 for 25 yards and an interceptions, one of the worst first halves of his career. By the end of the day, even though he had a win, the 116 passing yards represented his worst yardage output since he threw for 115 yards in a 17-10 win over the Bills on Dec. 20, 2009. He managed to bounce back and put together some nice second-half scoring drives -- including a 12-play, 82-yard sequence in the fourth quarter than ended with a Ridley touchdown run -- but the highlight of the day for Brady likely came when he used his legs and not his arm. With the Patriots leading 20-17 and driving into the teeth of a stiff wind, New England was facing a 4th and 4, and he scrambled eight yards to pick up the first down.
THE PATRIOTS ARE CAPABLE OF PLAYING WELL IN THE THIRD QUARTER
After the game, several players indicated that the third quarter was a big point of emphasis going into this week’s contest. Through the first seven games of the season, the Patriots had been outscored 44-9 in the third quarter -- last week against the Jets, all of their third-quarter deficiencies were on display, as New England was outscored 17-0 on the way to the overtime loss. That contrasted sharply with the Patriots on Sunday against the Dolphins, as New England was sharp in every phase of their game in the third quarter. The Patriots outscored Miami 17-0 in the third, turning a 17-3 deficit into a 20-17 lead by the start of the fourth quarter.
IT TAKES TIME FOR DEFENSIVE BACKS TO LEARN HOW TO PLAY TOGETHER
Devin McCourty and Marquice Cole combined on what might have been one of the prettiest defensive plays of the year in the fourth quarter when McCourty tipped a Tannehill deep pass that was intended for Mike Wallace to Cole. The play was perfectly executed: from McCourty’s ability to read the ball and come over to offer assistance, to his tip skills that knocked the ball away from Wallace to Cole having the piece of mind not only to catch the ball but to keep his feet inbounds as he was falling to the ground. Just a perfectly executed play from start to finish for the New England secondary. One of the things that McCourty and Cole talked about after the game was the fact that that sort of play usually only comes about after playing for an extended stretch alongside each other, and it was clear the familiarity between the two allowed for them to make a connection on what was one of the most impressive defensive plays of the season.
AFTER TWO GAMES, LOGAN RYAN IS OFFICIALLY IN THE MIX FOR TEAM ROOKIE OF THE YEAR
It’s only taken two games, but the rookie out of Rutgers has already shown a knack for making big plays. Last week against the Jets, it was the pick-6 -- his first career NFL interception -- that highlighted his work. On Sunday, he followed that up with a pair of sacks, as well as a forced fumble. He also just missed his second interception of the season, one that would have likely been returned for another score. The chastened Ryan, who took great pains Sunday to apologize again for his crotch grab against the Jets that drew a fine, got plenty of work early on, but that workload was increased as the game continued after Kyle Arrington went down with a groin injury in the second half. It’s a relatively small sample size -- and he’s shown a nice ability to work as a slot corner -- but to this point in the season, there’s been a lot to like about his performance.
LOSING SEBASTIAN VOLLMER WILL HURT
The right tackle went down with what appeared to be a serious knee injury in the first half, collapsing to the ground in agony. Vollmer, who has been an elite offensive lineman when healthy, will be difficult to replace in the long term -- New England’s offensive line doesn’t have the sort of depth it’s featured in the past. Marcus Cannon ended up playing the rest of the game at right tackle, but he also serves as the backup guard. (It might say something about the lack of faith in Will Svitek that the coaching staff passed him over at the tackle spot in favor of Cannon, a converted guard.) Regardless, an offensive line that has been challenged mightily over the last four weeks (16 sacks in the last four games) will face another challenge going forward if Vollmer is missing for an extended stretch.
THE PASS RUSH IS BETTER WHEN IT’S FACING A ONE-DIMENSIONAL OFFENSE
The Dolphins offensive splits pretty much tell the complete story: Miami ran the ball effectively early, going for 103 rushing yards in the first half with Tannehill ending up 11-for-18 for 72 yards over the first two quarters. But after the Patriots turned the game around and took control in the third and into the fourth quarter, the Dolphins started throwing the ball. Tannehill had 24 pass attempts in the second half, while Miami attempted just nine rushes. (Some of that was the result of the Dolphins slipping into panic mode -- with the contest starting to slip away, they were clearly forcing the action when they probably didn’t need to.) As a result, it wasn’t a surprise to see New England come away with six second-half sacks, with Ryan finishing with two sacks and Dont’a Hightower, Rob Ninkovich, Chris Jones and Dane Fletcher adding single sacks of their own.
THEY HAD NO PROBLEM WITH ACCEPTING A GIFT OR TWO
The Dolphins were hit with seven penalties for 61 yards -- not an extraordinary amount, but they got a couple of interesting calls down the stretch that may have had an impact on the game. The one that stood out above all others was a penalty for an “illegal bat,” which took place early in the fourth quarter and nullified a big play for the Miami defense. With the Patriots holding a 20-17 edge with just over nine minutes left, Tom Brady and the offense was facing a 2nd and 7 at the Miami 23. On the play, the protection broke down and Brady was strip-sacked by safety Dolphins Jimmy Wilson. Miami’s Olivier Vernon went after the loose ball, but it squirted away from him. Nate Solder finally recovered it for the Patriots, but not until the ball was near midfield. However, the lost yardage went by the board when officials hit Vernon with the flag, and because the penalty was enforced at the spot of the foul, the Patriots had 10 penalty yards a new set of downs at the 13. Four plays later, Ridley scored from three yards out for the touchdown. (For what it’s worth, there were two third-down penalties on the Miami defense that kept New England drives alive, and both came at the expense of Miami defensive backs trying to slow down Gronkowski: In the first half, Wilson was hit with a defensive pass interference call on a pass play for Gronk that kept a Patriots drive alive that ended with a Stephen Gostkowski field goal. And in the second half, there was a defensive holding penalty on cornerback Dimitri Patterson on a third-down pass play that kept a New England drive alive, one that also ended with a Gostkowski field goal.)
AARON DOBSON MAY HAVE SURPASSED KENBRELL THOMPKINS
Part of it is because Dobson has now had nice back-to-back weeks for the Patriots, and part of it is because there’s now a book on Thompkins, which means he’s drawing tougher and tougher defensive assignments every week. On Sunday, Dobson had four catches for 60 yards and a touchdown. While he’s had other games with more receptions (seven in the September win over the Bucs), the win over the Dolphins likely represented his finest hour for several reasons, not the least of which was the fact that he and Brady only failed to connect on one pass. Dobson’s 80 percent catch rate (four catches on five targets) against Miami was his best outing of the year, and included a 14-yard touchdown catch from Brady in the third quarter (New England’s first receiving touchdown of the season in the third quarter all year) and a 26-yard catch late in the third quarter. For Dobson, he now has a three-game stretch of 13 catches for 157 yards and a touchdown. Not Jerry Rice numbers, but a good start. He’ll look to build on that next week against the Steelers.
THEY HAVE SHOWN SOME NICE MENTAL TOUGHNESS … AT TIMES
It’s come in fits and starts over the first eight games of the 2013 season, but there have been plenty of instances where the Patriots have done a nice job of fighting back when placed in adverse situations. Of course, some of that adversity is their own doing -- witness the 14-point deficit they dug for themselves Sunday against the Dolphins, one that sparked some boos from the home crowd at Gillette Stadium. But in the wins over the Saints, Falcons and Sunday against the Dolphins, they showed a nice ability to battle through some difficult situations. Some would call it being able to steal a win, while others would praise their toughness and resiliency. The truth likely lies somewhere in between, but that should not diminish the fact that the Patriots sit at the midway point of the 2013 season with a 6-2 mark, two full games up on the rest of the division. With the second half of the season dawning, it's a good place to be.