Stevan Ridley. (AP)
With the Patriots off this weekend and the postseason ready to begin, we’ve got the Patriots Positional Playoff Preview, a week-long, position-by-position look at the Patriots and how they look heading into the postseason. We started with the quarterbacks — now, it’s on to the running backs.
Depth chart: Stevan Ridley (290 carries, 1,263 rushing yards, 4.4 yards per carry, 12 touchdowns), Danny Woodhead (76 carries, 301 rushing yards, 4.0 yards per carry, 40 receptions, 446 receiving yards, 7 total touchdowns), Brandon Bolden (56 carries, 274 rushing yards, 4.9 yards per carry, two touchdowns), Shane Vereen (62 carries, 251 rushing yards, 4.0 yards per carry, eight receptions, 149 receiving yards, four total touchdowns).
Overview: When it came to the running game, it was an offseason filled with questions: Who would replace BenJarvus Green-Ellis as the No. 1 option on the ground? Was Joseph Addai a viable replacement? And could the young guys step up and be a consistent presence?
But those questions were quickly answered with one of the better seasons in recent memory for the Patriots’ ground game. The combination of Ridley as the lead back, Woodhead as a multidimensional threat, Vereen as an extra option at both spots and Bolden as an occasional workhorse was a great group. As a result, the team rushed for 2,184 yards (the most since the 2008 Patriots, who finished with 2,278 rushing yards), and brought some real balance to the New England offense. As for the issues with Ridley and ball security, his ratio of touches-to-lost fumbles (296 touches on the season — 290 rushes, six catches — to two lost fumbles) isn’t a problem, particularly when stacked up with any other back with a big workload over the 2012 season.
Going into the postseason, expect Ridley to continue to get the bulk of the carries. One thing that should make Patriots fans happy when it comes to the running game is that only two of the Patriots potential AFC playoff opponents are in the Top 10 when it comes to run defense, and those two teams (Denver, which is third at 91.1 rushing yards per game allowed, and Houston, which is at 97.5 rushing yards per game allowed) have already been dominated pretty thoroughly by Ridley and New England. Against the Broncos on Oct. 7, Ridley ran for a career-high 151 yards and a touchdown. And against the Texans on Dec. 10, he had 72 yards on the ground and a touchdown.
Best Moment: That game against the Broncos was one of the best and most complete performances for any New England offense in recent memory. The Patriots held a 36-24 edge in time of possession. They set a franchise record with 35 first downs, and they were 11-for-17 on converting third-down opportunities. They had scoring drives of 12 and 14 plays, and two that went 16 plays. And a huge part of it was the running game — New England rushed for a season-high 251 yards, sparked by 151 from Ridley. (Bolden had 54 rushing yards and Woodhead also had 47 rushing yards on the game.)
Worst Moment: In an otherwise impressive regular season, the Patriots running backs would likely want a mulligan on two games: the Sept. 23 game against the Ravens in Baltimore (77 rushing yards as a team, including 37 from Ridley) and an Oct. 14 loss to the Seahawks in Seattle (87 rushing yards as a team, including 34 from Ridley). In both games, the running game couldn’t establish any traction, and as a result, the offense struggled.
By the numbers (tie): Ridley fell 10 carries short of being the first New England running back to rush for at least 300 carries since Corey Dillon turned the trick in 2004. And Woodhead became the first New England running back since Kevin Faulk in 2008 to finish with at least 40 carries and 40 catches in a single season.
Money quote: “They biggest thing about Stevan is that he’s very passionate about the game. Stevan loves to play, and I think that’s his first and biggest asset. There’s no doubt — on a game day, he is there. He is mentally in the right frame of mind to play the game. I think as long as he’s got that kind of passion for the game, he’s going to do the little things that he needs to do to be physically ready to play the game.” — Patriots running backs coach Ivan Fears on Ridley.