AFC East: Stevan Ridley

ESPN.com's fantasy football staff has unveiled its top 200 player rankings and here is a look at where the top Patriots fall in the list:

35. TE Rob Gronkowski (third at position)
58. RB Shane Vereen (26th at position)
61. WR Julian Edelman (24th at position)
66. RB Stevan Ridley (28th at position)
97. WR Danny Amendola (42nd at position)
111. QB Tom Brady (12th at position)
136. WR Aaron Dobson (51st at position)
148. Patriots defense/special teams (ninth as a unit)
152. K Stephen Gostkowski (second at position)
170. WR Brandon LaFell (57th at position)

As the piece notes, these rankings are based on a 10-team ESPN standard league with 16-player rosters, starting one quarterback, two running backs, two wide receivers, one tight end, one flex (RB/WR/TE), a team defense and a kicker.

Any objections?

Draft & free agency: Running back

February, 21, 2014
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With free agency to begin March 11, and the draft from May 8-10, one thing NFL teams generally do at this time is marry the two to better assess the best approach to filling potential needs. For example, if a team knows it’s a deep draft for top-quality offensive tackles (2014 is such), it might be less inclined to be as aggressive at that position in free agency.

This was a general point made by several coaches and executives at the NFL combine, such as Carolina Panthers head coach Ron Rivera and Atlanta Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff.

With this in mind, our plan is to continue to look at each position in the coming days through a similar lens.

Today's position: Running back

Draft: The class is deep but not top-heavy, as it's possible there isn't a running back selected in the first round. Part of that is tied to a general de-valuing of the position by teams. NFL Network draft analyst Mike Mayock said, "The good news in this draft and in the last few is that if you can get in the second, third, fourth round, and find different flavors of running backs; you'll see some teams that will draft two or three running backs in one or two drafts, just so you can have a big back and a third down change of pace guy and I think that's where the league has gone and I think that's where it's going to continue to go." Boston College's Andre Williams is Mayock's fourth-rated rusher.

Free agency: Five-year veteran LeGarrette Blount is part of a deep group that includes Knowshon Moreno (Broncos), Donald Brown (Colts), Darren McFadden (Raiders), Maurice Jones-Drew (Jaguars), Dexter McCluster (Chiefs), Rashard Mendenhall (Cardinals), Willis McGahee (Browns), James Starks (Packers) and Ben Tate (Texans), among others. This has been more of a buyer's market in recent years and 2014 is likely to be the same.

Patriots perspective: Blount came on strong at the end of the 2013 season and bringing back him would seemingly be a priority; a two-year deal in the $3-4 million range is one projection of the market to do so. With Stevan Ridley and Shane Vereen entering the final years of their contracts, it wouldn't be a surprise if the Patriots draft a running back to build depth and with 2015 in mind.

NFL fines Ridley $5,250 for red shoes

January, 17, 2014
Jan 17
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New England Patriots running back Stevan Ridley was fined $5,250 for a uniform violation during the team's 43-22 divisional round win against the Indianapolis Colts.

The violation stemmed from Ridley wearing dominant red footwear, something that linebacker Brandon Spikes has also been fined for this season.

The third-year running back had a productive night against the Colts, rushing for 52 yards and two touchdowns as part of New England's six rushing touchdown effort.

And then there were two -- two teams that know most of what there is to know about each other, two future Hall of Fame quarterbacks who add to their legacies with every pass, all with a Super Bowl trip on the line.

The Denver Broncos and New England Patriots, who have faced each other in each of the past three seasons and in the divisional round of the 2011 season, took it to overtime Nov. 24. The Broncos let a 24-0 halftime lead get away, and the Patriots won 34-31 after a punt bounced off Broncos cornerback Tony Carter's leg in overtime on a frigid night in Foxborough, Mass.

ESPN.com Broncos reporter Jeff Legwold and Patriots reporter Mike Reiss discuss Sunday's AFC Championship Game in Sports Authority Field at Mile High.

Legwold: Peyton Manning and Bill Belichick yet again. Do you think, in all your time around Belichick, that he tries to bring something new to the table every time he faces Manning? Or does he assume Manning has done the homework and put his efforts into getting people in the right position?

Reiss: I'd say there's always a new wrinkle or two, Jeff. Belichick has said in the past that Manning is too smart to just do the same thing over and over again -- both within a game and from matchup to matchup. Part of that discussion is also the state of the Patriots' personnel entering the matchup. A player like rookie linebacker Jamie Collins, for example, might give Belichick the flexibility to introduce something unique based on his breakthrough since the Nov. 24 meeting between the teams.

The weather forecast looks promising for Manning. No icy cold forecast. How do you think he approaches this game compared to the Nov. 24 contest? Do you think he will be less reluctant to hand the ball off?

Legwold: It will be a postcard day Sunday with the temperature expected to be 58 degrees with 0 percent chance of rain and light winds. So any decisions the two teams make on offense will have to do with what's in front of them on defense only. Manning will be inclined to hand the ball off if he sees the Patriots in some of those lighter personnel groupings deployed to handle Denver's three-wide-receiver look. Offensive coordinator Adam Gase has a run option built into most things Manning can change into at the line of scrimmage. The Broncos certainly like how Knowshon Moreno and Montee Ball are trending in the run game. They have split carries down the stretch, and both run with tackle-shedding power.

Gase, with coaching DNA that includes his time with Mike Martz, is an aggressive sort. With the next-generation numbers the Broncos' offense has put up this season, it's easy to forget they still averaged 28.8 carries per game and topped 30 carries per matchup nine times this season. If they get a look from the New England defense that calls for a run, the Broncos will be inclined to pound away.

Where is Tom Brady's game and the offense right now after some rough moments early in the season? Has Brady benefited from a run-heavy approach down the stretch and into the postseason?

Reiss: The biggest benefit for Brady with the run-heavy approach has been how it opens play-action opportunities. Danny Amendola's 53-yard catch in the divisional round is one of the best examples. Also, part of the reason the Patriots have gone so run-heavy is that it's the area where they have their most assets. They are limited when it comes to pass-catchers who create consistent separation at tight end and receiver. As for Brady's game, there have been no signs of decline in arm strength, accuracy or decision-making. The main reasons for the struggles early in the year, from my view, were more about the changes around him. That's not to say Brady didn't make his mistakes, but it's sort of interesting to look back on some of the media-based discussion around Weeks 6 to 8 about how maybe Father Time had caught up to him.

Now that we're a full season in, how would you sum up the Wes Welker signing? Just as the Broncos hoped for? Better? Worse?

Legwold: Welker finished the regular season with 73 catches for 778 yards and 10 touchdowns. His presence in the slot, along with Julius Thomas at tight end, is part of the reason the offense had a historic season. With the Broncos lining up in a three-wide-receiver set the majority of the season -- and every snap of the divisional round win over the San Diego Chargers -- they force defenses into some difficult choices. Thomas is often in the slot on one side of the formation, and Welker is in the slot on the other side. When Thomas missed two games earlier this season with a knee injury, both the Patriots and the Kansas City Chiefs (Dec. 1) elected to double-team Welker. He missed three games after suffering his second concussion in a four-week span Dec. 8 against the Tennessee Titans but played last week against the Chargers without issue.

Welker did have some spells this season when he had a cluster of dropped passes -- three against the Patriots on a frigid night to go with drops against Washington and San Diego in the regular season. Overall, though, he was exactly what the Broncos hoped he would be in their offense. He meshed with Manning quickly and was a big part of the plan right from his nine-catch performance against the Baltimore Ravens in the season opener.

The Patriots did not face Thomas in the Nov. 24 meeting. Do you think they will try to match up Collins on Thomas this time around?

Reiss: That seems like the natural matchup, especially after seeing Collins splitting out wide on Colts tight end Coby Fleener on Saturday night and playing very well. Collins is unique in that, at 6-foot-3 and 250 pounds, he is fast enough to be competitive down the field in coverage (e.g., fourth-quarter interception versus the Colts) but powerful enough to play in the box and deliver a blow in the running game and as a pass-rusher. The Patriots' top draft pick in 2013, selected 52nd overall out of Southern Mississippi, he is an intriguing player whom Patriots fans really got their first extended look at Saturday as he played every snap against the Colts. He had been groomed behind the scenes up to that point, playing just 25 percent of the defensive snaps on the season in more of a reserve role.

Thomas may not have played in the first game between the teams, but Von Miller did. How does Miller's season-ending knee injury affect the Broncos' defense?

Legwold: Of all the players who were signed in the weeks after the initial leaguewide binge in free agency, the Broncos' signing of Shaun Phillips was easily one of the best. Denver signed Phillips to a one-year, $1 million deal during the draft weekend in April, well over a month after free agency had opened, a deal that didn't have a signing bonus but did have some incentives based on sack totals.

Phillips was initially how the Broncos planned to deal with the loss of Elvis Dumervil in free agency. When Miller was suspended for the first six games of the season, Phillips had 5.5 sacks in those games to lead the way. He finished the regular season with 10 sacks to lead the team. In Sunday's win, with Miller on injured reserve, Phillips had two sacks against the Chargers. He is the single-most important player in the Broncos' pass rush in Miller's absence. Denver may have to take more risks without Miller on the field, and that's always a tough choice against someone like Brady, who can easily find the holes in coverage. But if Phillips can consistently create pressure -- with both sacks on three-man rushes against San Diego -- it allows the Broncos to move things around a little more and cover more of the bases.

Did Belichick make a conscious effort to get big backs like LeGarrette Blount and Stevan Ridley in the lineup when he knew he would get smaller defensive personnel against the team's passing attack?

Reiss: That's fair to say, as the Patriots pride themselves on creating those matchups during the game, with coordinator Josh McDaniels finding his groove in recent weeks. They refer to themselves as a "game plan" offense because they tailor their plan weekly based on what they perceive to be the weakness of the opposition. They'll shuttle in different personnel groupings early -- multiple receivers, two backs, two tight ends, etc. -- to get information on how the opponent is matching up and then focus on the one they like best. This week, what's fascinating to me is that I think they probably see vulnerability in the Broncos' secondary, but I wonder how they feel about their own personnel in being able to exploit it. So that could keep them grounded.

The Patriots have been running the ball very well. How is the Broncos' run defense?

Legwold: In a year when the Broncos have been forced, by injuries and Miller's suspension, to mix and match on defense, their run defense has likely been more consistent in comparison to some of the other issues they've had. When defensive tackle Kevin Vickerson went to injured reserve Nov. 27 with a hip injury, they did wobble a bit, surrendering 159 yards rushing to the Chiefs and 177 yards rushing to the Chargers in two of the three games that immediately followed.

They have regained their balance a bit since, moving Paris Lenon into the middle linebacker spot in the base defense, and rookie defensive tackle Sylvester Williams has played better each week. Overall, the biggest issue for the Broncos will be how they defend the run if the Patriots get them in nickel or dime personnel on defense and then run the ball at the smaller looks. The Broncos' safeties will have to tackle and tackle well to make it work.

Belichick has always tried to make "other" people beat him and take away an offense's front-line players. How do you think he would rank the Broncos' threats in the passing game, and where do you think the one-on-one matchups will be?

Reiss: One insightful point that ESPN analyst Tedy Bruschi made in his weekly chat was the idea of defending the Broncos from the inside-out. Manning is still an accurate marksman, one of the greatest of all time, but I'm guessing that even he would agree that some of the downfield and outside-the-numbers throws he used to make don't come as easily to him. So it makes sense that the Patriots would focus more resources on the inside part of the field, where it would seem we would most likely see Welker and Thomas. With this in mind, I could envision the Patriots matching up cornerback Aqib Talib with Demaryius Thomas on the outside and cornerback Alfonzo Dennard with Eric Decker and taking their chances that those one-on-one matchups will be competitive. Trusting those cornerbacks in those one-on-one matchups would allow the defense to focus extra attention/personnel to the inside part of the field.

Any X factors or special-teams contributors we should keep on the radar?

Legwold: The Broncos have usually been lockdown tight on special teams -- opening the season with two touchdown returns and two blocked punts, one of those returned for a score, in the first four weeks of the season. Those normally reliable units, however, have wobbled plenty down the stretch. The Chiefs' Knile Davis had a 108-yard kickoff return for a touchdown, the Titans' Leon Washington had a 95-yard kickoff return, and the Texans' Keshawn Martin had a 51-yard punt return. Toss in the first blocked punt of Britton Colquitt's career in Oakland to go with Trindon Holliday's occasional adventures catching the ball, and it's been an unpredictable stretch. But Holliday is always a threat to uncork a return because of his breathtaking speed. The Broncos used wide receiver Decker as the primary punt returner against the Chargers last week, and he had a 47-yarder. So the Broncos have the potential to pop one at any time, especially in Denver, where Holliday returned both a kickoff and a punt for touchdowns in last January's playoff loss to the Ravens.

 

W2W4: Five things for Colts-Patriots

January, 10, 2014
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After a weekend off, the New England Patriots are set to return to game action on Saturday night against the Indianapolis Colts (8:15 ET).

The two teams squaring off reminds us of the days of Tom Brady-Peyton Manning in the postseason, as this will mark the fourth time the two franchises have played in the postseason (by the way: the winner of their three previous postseason matchups has gone on to win the Super Bowl).

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The stakes are obvious for the game, with a spot in the AFC Championship Game on the line. During this same weekend last year, the Patriots found themselves playing a Divisional round game at home with a chance to ensure that the AFC Championship Game would be played inside of Gillette Stadium.

The top-seeded Broncos had been upset by the Ravens on Saturday night, leaving the Patriots and Colts as the highest seeds and thus turning their game into the right to play at home the following weekend.

A win this Saturday night for the Patriots or Colts would open up the door to hosting the AFC Championship Game, though it would take an unlikely upset by the Chargers on Sunday for that to be the case.

But that’s getting ahead of ourselves, as Saturday has the feel of a potentially memorable contest.

With kickoff drawing near, here’s a look at what we’ll be watching for.

[+] EnlargeRobert Mathis
Joe Robbins/Getty ImagesRobert Mathis led the NFL with 19.5 sacks this season.
1. Solder-Mathis showdown. The Colts’ best defensive player, defensive end Robert Mathis, may just be the top pass-rusher in the NFL. That’s a big job for Patriots left tackle Nate Solder, who said earlier this week that Mathis reminded him -- in some ways -- of Saints defensive end Junior Galette. The Patriots are likely to give Solder some help from time-to-time on Mathis with the utilization of backs chipping and tight ends nudging Mathis before releasing into their patterns, but Solder will also need to be up to the task, as he has been for much of this season.

2. Shadow T.Y.? The Colts’ offense has been depleted by injuries this season, leaving T.Y. Hilton as the most fearsome target for quarterback Andrew Luck. Hilton is a terrific athlete with exceptional speed, which the Patriots have tried to simulate this week in practice by adding Reggie Dunn, who once ran a 4.24 forty. The question that lingers is whether the Patriots will turn to Aqib Talib to shadow Hilton, as he has done with many other wide receivers this season. Hilton doesn’t run exclusively out of the slot, but his role on the inside has picked up since Reggie Wayne went down. Might Talib follow him around the formation? Or will the Patriots turn to multiple defenders to slow him down?

3. The role of former Pats. The Colts brought aboard a familiar face this week in former Patriots wide receiver Deion Branch, adding to a group of former Patriots that now play in Indianapolis. That also includes kicker Adam Vinatieri, who will play in his 25th Patriots-Colts showdown. While Vinatieri’s role is defined, how Branch will be utilized will be interesting to monitor. Given that he was signed this week, it seems plausible Branch might not even be active for the game, but if he is, many eyes will be on number 86 (his jersey number with the Colts) to see how he performs on the field.

4. No safe leads. Every game is worth watching in its entirety, but this one in particular. If we learned anything about the Patriots this season and from the Colts last weekend, it’s that no lead is safe and no game is truly finished until the clock strikes zero. So if either team jumps out early, don’t presume the outcome is decided. The Patriots are fully aware of just how capable Luck is playing from behind, while the Colts know the Patriots have been as gritty as any other team in the NFL in close games this season.

5. Airing it out or ground and pound? Earlier this week, Mike Reiss and I debated over whether the Patriots should air things out against a vulnerable Colts secondary or continue what has worked of late -- the ground game approach led by LeGarrette Blount. The Colts' defense is probably better against the run than it is versus the pass, but that’s not to say the front seven is a dominant group (it allowed 5.1 yards per carry this season, second worst in the NFL). With potential rain in the forecast, slick conditions on the field could make throwing the football difficult, and could lead to a physical showdown at the line of scrimmage. If the Patriots do opt for a ground and pound approach, look for Blount and Stevan Ridley to both be relied upon heavily.

Halftime thoughts: Patriots 16, Bills 3

December, 29, 2013
12/29/13
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FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Offering some halftime thoughts as the Buffalo Bills trail the New England Patriots 16-3:

1. This one has unfolded about as expected. The Bills came into the game with the NFL's 20th-ranked run defense and they've looked even worse in that phase Sunday. The Patriots have already gained 173 yards on the ground, including a 36-yard touchdown run by LeGarrette Blount. He is averaging 7.9 yards per carry, while Stevan Ridley is pacing the Patriots with an 8.0-yard average.

2. Also as expected, the Bills' red zone offense -- which entered the game 31st in the league -- hasn't come through. The Bills crossed midfield on their first three drives but stalled out. They are 0-for-1 in the red zone, settling for a field goal on their first possession.

3. Thad Lewis' stat line today: 3-for-8 for 62 yards. Even with the slick conditions today, it's tough to win on the road with a 65.6 passer rating. Whether it's Lewis or EJ Manuel, the Bills have issues at quarterback.

4. Something to monitor: Safety Jairus Byrd left late in the first quarter with an ankle injury. He will not return. Byrd will be the Bills' biggest-name free-agent this offseason. He dealt with foot soreness earlier this season that kept him out of the first five games.

Double Coverage: Bills at Patriots

December, 27, 2013
12/27/13
10:00
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C.J. Spiller and Tom BradyGetty ImagesTom Brady, right, and the Patriots hope to secure a postseason bye with a win vs. C.J. Spiller's Bills.
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- The New England Patriots and Buffalo Bills will end the regular season the way they started it, by facing each other.

The Patriots needed a late drive to beat the Bills 23-21 in the opener, but the teams went in mostly opposite directions over the next 15 weeks.

Unfortunately for the Bills, the script is a familiar one. They haven’t qualified for the playoffs since 1999, the longest active drought, so now the focus turns to next season.

Meanwhile, the Patriots enter another finale with playoff positioning in mind after having clinched the AFC East title for the 10th time in the past 11 seasons. The Patriots could actually thank the Bills for that, because Buffalo’s 19-0 victory against Miami last Sunday handed the division crown to New England.

Here to preview the matchup are ESPN.com NFL Nation reporters Mike Rodak (Bills) and Mike Reiss (Patriots).

Reiss: Mike, this seems pretty obvious, but coach Doug Marrone is finishing his first season, and a win against the Patriots could go a long way toward the foundation he’s attempting to establish. What signs, if any, have you seen from Marrone that the Bills are on the right track?

Rodak: Mike, I think the past two games have said something about this team. After their 27-6 loss to Tampa on Dec. 8, the season was essentially over for Buffalo. They could have packed it in and waited until next season to make improvement. Instead, they have strung together their first back-to-back wins of the season. Does that matter in the long run? Probably not, but Marrone often talks about establishing a sense of accountability and resiliency in his team, and there have been some signs of that over the past two weeks.

Mike, the Patriots have shown plenty of resiliency this season too. Is this the best coaching job you've seen from Bill Belichick?

Reiss: Belichick and his staff have been coaching their tails off, no doubt about that. I have always rated 2008 at the top of the mountain, because when you lose Tom Brady on the 15th offensive play of a season and still manage to go 11-5, that’s pretty remarkable from this viewpoint. I think we’ve seen in recent years what often happens when a superstar quarterback is lost for the season -- the 2011 Colts with Peyton Manning as one example, which cost team president Bill Polian his job. We also see how the Packers are struggling this season without Aaron Rodgers. The Patriots have been hit hard by injuries this season too and also have quite a few young players who have been asked to take on significant roles. So it’s been impressive.

As for young players being asked to carry the load for the Bills, the big question from here is if EJ Manuel is a franchise quarterback to build around. What is your opinion on Manuel in that regard?

Rodak: That is a tough call, and it's going to be the biggest question Marrone and general manager Doug Whaley will need to address this offseason. From a leadership standpoint, Manuel has a presence and a poise that any successful quarterback needs. But it hasn't translated to consistency on the field. Since returning from his second knee injury, Manuel has thrown six interceptions and shown wild swings in accuracy as a passer. The Bills seem content with pressing forward with Manuel and allowing him to develop with live action each Sunday. That is the approach most teams take with young quarterbacks; it doesn't always work out. In most cases, deciding when to make a change is difficult. However Manuel's career unfolds, the Bills would be smart to have a Plan B, even as soon as next season. With J.P. Losman, that Plan B was Kelly Holcomb. With Trent Edwards, it was Ryan Fitzpatrick. Ultimately, neither of those veteran backups put the Bills in the right spot to win, which is why I think the organization must aim higher when hedging their bets with Manuel. Drafting another quarterback in the first round isn't an option that should be immediately dismissed.

This week, Marrone mentioned how the Patriots have several rookies playing roles on both sides of the ball. Watching undrafted defensive tackle Joe Vellano back in spring camps, I never would have thought he would be contributing as much as he has this season. But can the Patriots rely on Vellano and their other younger players in the playoffs? It doesn't seem that long ago when safety Patrick Chung, then in his second season, botched a fake punt that cost the Patriots in a divisional playoff loss to the Jets.

Reiss: Mike, I’d be shocked if the Bills take another quarterback in the first round. If they do in 2014, Buffalo wings on me from Duff’s for the next five years every time the Patriots come to western New York.

As for the Patriots, the rookies playing the largest roles are now [receiver] Aaron Dobson, [defensive tackle] Chris Jones, [cornerback] Logan Ryan and [punter] Ryan Allen. The others are sprinkled in from more of a complementary standpoint or as a short-term fill-in (e.g., Josh Kline at left guard vs. Baltimore). Vellano, for one, has seen his snaps decrease in recent weeks in favor of second-year defensive tackle Sealver Siliga. Anytime a team has rookies and youngsters playing front-line roles, it comes with some added risk. But I’d say this about the Patriots this season: As young as they are in certain spots, no moment seems too big for most of the players on the roster.

Defensively, the Bills look strong up front. What do you see from them on that side of the ball?

Rodak: They certainly are, Mike. At this point, it's safe to call it the best defensive line in the league. The Bills have benefited from career seasons from both Kyle Williams and Marcell Dareus, who are both serious candidates for the Pro Bowl. Same with Mario Williams, who is enjoying his best season since signing his monster deal with Buffalo. But there have also been some under-the-radar contributors. Whaley's offseason swap of linebacker Kelvin Sheppard for defensive end Jerry Hughes has paid dividends. You can add Hughes to the list of players having career seasons under first-year defensive coordinator Mike Pettine. In the secondary, that theme continues with Leodis McKelvin, who had four shaky years before finding his groove this season. The Bills have also gotten big things from their smallest player -- 5-foot-7 slot cornerback Nickell Robey, who went undrafted in the spring but has played like an early-round pick. There have been bad moments for the defense, but in general, they came mostly earlier in the season. Right now, it looks like a unit on the rise.

Mike, one area where the Bills have been vulnerable at points this season has been their run defense. They rank 20th in the NFL, allowing 4.2 yards per rush. Is the Patriots' running game capable of exploiting that weakness? And perhaps more importantly, will the Patriots need their ground attack to advance in the playoffs?

Reiss: They are certainly capable of doing it, and last Sunday’s win against the Ravens is the evidence. The Patriots entered the game with a mindset of being physical, and they won the battle of the line of scrimmage, churning out 142 yards on the ground against a sturdy Ravens front that struggled against some zone runs. The Patriots ran it 34 times and had 28 dropbacks in the game. I don’t think they necessarily have to have that type of split in the playoffs to win, but like most offenses, this attack is at its best when it's most balanced. Ball security was a big issue the first few months of the season, mostly with running backs Stevan Ridley, and to a lesser degree with LeGarrette Blount (fumble in Oct. 6 loss to the Bengals), but that has subsided. One of the big keys with the running game last Sunday is it helped the Patriots in the red zone, where they are still recalibrating after losing tight end Rob Gronkowski to a season-ending knee injury on Dec. 8.

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Stevan Ridley stays strong after benching

December, 26, 2013
12/26/13
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FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- One of the defining images of Stevan Ridley's 2013 season with the New England Patriots came during a Dec. 1 game against the Houston Texans. The running back who led the team in snaps played the year before watched from the sideline in street clothes, clutching a football throughout.

He was a healthy scratch.

It didn’t seem like a stretch to say that Ridley’s three-year career with the team had officially reached a crossroads at that point, a result of losing a fumble in three straight games.

Ridley mostly kept a low media profile since that time, but that changed on Thursday as he sat at his locker during the time reporters were present in the locker room (1:30-2:15 p.m.), welcoming anyone who approached to discuss “an interesting year” that has been one big “growing pain.”

He started with the Boston Herald. After a short break, it was ESPN.com. When that was over, a horde of reporters circled around him, Ridley’s presence among the group hard to miss because he was wearing a fluorescent yellow athletic top and footwear.

[+] EnlargeStevan Ridley
Jeremy Brevard/USA TODAY SportsStevan Ridley has been steady with the football since he was benched in early December due to his issues with fumbling.
Much like he charges ahead on the field, Ridley didn’t back down from the questions, particularly when it came to what it was like watching on the sidelines Dec. 1.

“For me, I don’t let anything break me, man. I really don’t. I knew what I did to get there,” Ridley said in the 1-on-1 interview. “It wasn’t like Coach Bill [Belichick] just up and decided to bench me for the game. There was a reason for him doing what he did. He’s one of the best coaches to coach this sport, and I respect whatever he puts me through.

“Did I agree with it? No, but that wasn’t my call. I’m the player, and I play. He’s the coach, and he coaches. So whatever I got thrown my way, I had to handle it. It wasn’t a pride thing. There wasn’t any sulking.

“It hurt, you know what I mean? But at the same time, that’s somewhere I don’t ever want to be again. If that’s what is going to fuel me, if that’s what I needed, I have to bounce back strong. I refuse to let this bring me down and control my career. I have to keep fighting and keep battling every day. I’m going to work every day and am going to work hard. I know the player I am and I know the player God created me to be, and I just have to keep pushing it.”

Since the benching, Ridley has played in three games, although his snaps have been down (17, 13, 21). LeGarrette Blount is now starting in his place and playing a bit more.

Most importantly for Ridley, he hasn’t fumbled.

“It’s high and tight, man. I made a few calls and talked to a few people, but let’s be real. I’ve been playing this game a long time. There’s no magic word. There’s no magic fix I can go through. It’s something you just have to grind it out and trust in yourself, the people around you, and trust in God. He’s going to put you through some things,” Ridley said.

“You’re going to go through some adversity in life, in your job, in whatever you do, but it’s how you bounce back from that. You just have to keep it moving. For me, it’s holding the ball high and tight. If I keep the ball high and tight, the chances of the ball coming out is way less.”

(Read full post)

Sharing Patriots halftime thoughts

December, 8, 2013
12/08/13
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FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Sharing some halftime thoughts as the New England Patriots trail the Browns 6-0:

Uninspiring performance from Patriots: Dropped passes. Missed blocking assignments. Substitution issues on the sideline with the coaching staff and players that lead to 12-men-on-the-field penalties and general confusion. Simply put, it’s been uninspiring football from the Patriots. At the same time, credit also goes to the Browns in some areas (e.g. D'Qwell Jackson's range on an interception of a throw that was forced), who certainly haven’t quit after last week’s loss to the Jaguars.

Not as much about adjustments as execution: Unlike last week, when the Patriots altered their offensive plan at halftime, this game doesn’t strike us as much about being adjustment-based. It’s more about execution. There are opportunities there if they can make the plays. The Patriots looked like one of the NFL's worst teams in the first half.

Charting Ridley’s usage: The Patriots have eased running back Stevan Ridley back into the mix after he was a healthy scratch last week because of ball-security issues. He played five snaps in the first half.

Siliga’s presence highlights focus on interior rush defense: One of the areas prioritized defensively during the week of practice was the Browns’ inside running game. Along those lines, the Patriots started nose tackle Sealver Siliga (6-2, 325) over Joe Vellano (6-2, 300), electing for more bulk and power (and choosing Siliga over veteran Isaac Sopoaga to provide it). That was a notable personnel shift, and the results have been good. The inside running game, outside of the first few plays of the game, hasn’t been a big factor.

Closer look at cornerback usage: The Patriots started Aqib Talib and Logan Ryan at cornerback in the base defense, with Talib shadowing receiver Josh Gordon all over the field. When the Browns go to a three-receiver package, the Patriots are taking Ryan off the field and adding cornerbacks Alfonzo Dennard and Kyle Arrington as the fourth and fifth defensive backs. Something different, with Talib and Ryan two of the bright spots in a half with few of them.

Patriots open the half with ball: After winning the opening toss and deferring the choice to the second half, the Patriots will receive the opening kickoff of the half.

W2W4: Five things for Patriots-Browns

December, 6, 2013
12/06/13
6:01
PM ET
With just four games left in the regular season, each weekend will come into focus as it relates to possible postseason scenarios. Week 14 is the first weekend that the New England Patriots have an opportunity to punch their ticket to the playoffs, and they can do so in two different ways.

The Patriots can capture their fifth consecutive AFC East division title with a win against Cleveland and a Dolphins loss to the Steelers. They can also qualify for the playoffs by beating the Browns and having the Ravens lose to Minnesota.

But the Cleveland Browns stand in the way, and though the team’s record suggests a struggling season (they’re just 4-8), we saw last Sunday that the disparity in talent across the NFL is much narrower than records often suggest, as the then 2-9 Texans gave the Patriots all that they could handle.

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Just as the Patriots refused to look past the Texans in the week leading up to their game in Week 13, they’re not taking the bait to play the what-if game on playoff talk this week. The team has conveyed that while making the playoffs and winning the division is an annual goal, the focus this week remains on the Browns.

And with that in mind, here’s the five things we’ll be watching for as the Patriots host the Browns this Sunday afternoon at Gillette Stadium.

1. First half efficiency. One of the themes of the week in talking to Patriots players has been the need to start faster against Cleveland. In the past two weeks, the Patriots have trailed by an average of 17 points at halftime. Though those leads have not proved insurmountable -- they’ve overcome each of them -- the Patriots fully understand they cannot sustain this pattern of slow starts and expect to win every week. Pinpointing specifically what has gone wrong has not been easy, as the consensus appears to be that the Patriots simply need to execute better and avoid first-half turnovers.

2. Return of Ridley? After sitting out last week because of fumbling issues, will running back Stevan Ridley be back in the mix? That’s one of the biggest questions surrounding this Sunday, as the third-year back continues to be a player of note. The Patriots were able to run the ball effectively enough to win in Ridley’s absence last Sunday, but he’s their most talented rusher and a potential game-changer. If he sits again, one could wonder if he’ll become part of the running back rotation at any point this season, barring an injury. If he returns, how much will he be utilized?

[+] EnlargeJosh Gordon
Nick Cammett/Diamond Images/Getty ImagesJosh Gordon has caught 24 passes for 498 yards and three TDs in the Browns last two games.
3. Slowing Gordon. No hyperbole here -- Josh Gordon has ascended to the level of the NFL’s elite wide receivers. With nearly 500 yards receiving over his past two games, Gordon has soared to second in the NFL in receiving yards for the season, and is averaging the second most receiving yards per game in a single season in NFL history (124.9). Aqib Talib shared praise for Gordon this week, comparing him to the likes of Calvin Johnson and Andre Johnson, and it would seem likely that Talib will be used to shadow and try to contain Gordon on Sunday. He’s done well to limit other top receivers, but this Sunday could be his biggest test yet.

4. Run defense. Injuries have dramatically impacted the Patriots’ ability to stop the run, as they’ve slid down to 31st in the NFL in rushing defense, allowing more than 138 yards per game. The Broncos and Texans each had their way on the ground against the Patriots, and they’ll need to tighten the clamps this Sunday against Cleveland. If there was ever an opponent to help the team get back on track, the Browns are one of the candidates, as they rank fifth-worst in the NFL at just 82.3 rushing yards per game, including just 3.7 yards per carry. They have a rotation of backs that includes veteran Willis McGahee and capable pass-catcher Chris Ogbonnaya. The Patriots must slow whoever takes the lead role on Sunday.

5. Keeping Brady upright. New Browns defensive coordinator Ray Horton has roots with the Pittsburgh Steelers and a pressure-oriented front that he brought with him to both Arizona and now Cleveland. While serving as the Cardinals' coordinator in 2012, Horton schemed up perhaps the best game plane to slow down the Patriots that they saw all season, as Brady was sacked four times (he was sacked just 23 times in the other 15 games) and the Patriots were held to a season-low 18 points. The personnel is different in Cleveland, but Horton has some of the same elements at his disposal, and finding a way to slow down this attack much more effectively than they did a season ago will be critical for the Patriots on Sunday.
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Running back Brandon Bolden was not spotted at the start of Friday morning's rainy New England Patriots practice, which sparked the following question: Could this open the door for Stevan Ridley to return to the 46-man game-day roster?

Ridley
Ridley
Bolden hasn't been listed on the team's injury report this week and the absence could be non-injury related. More details regarding Bolden's absence should be learned around 4 p.m. ET when the official participation report is released.

The Patriots dressed three running backs for last Sunday's win against the Texans -- Shane Vereen (41 of 70 snaps), LeGarrette Blount (20 snaps) and Bolden (9) -- which left Ridley on the sidelines. Since that decision, one of the top storylines surrounding the team is if Ridley will continue to be a healthy scratch, or if he might re-emerge in some form. Bolden's status could have a direct impact on the answer.

The other area of note that caught the eye at practice was seeing fill-in starting right tackle Will Svitek's right ankle heavily taped. Svitek landed on the injury report Wednesday, leaving the Patriots vulnerable at tackle because starter Sebastian Vollmer (leg) is on season-ending injured reserve and top backup Marcus Cannon (ankle) remains out of practice.

Also with receiver Aaron Dobson (foot) not practicing, it essentially rules him out Sunday for the second straight game.

Cornerback Alfonzo Dennard wasn't present for the second day in a row as he is due in court for a second day in Nebraska.

Upon Further Review: Patriots Week 13

December, 2, 2013
12/02/13
10:00
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FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- A review of four hot issues following the New England Patriots' 34-31 win over the Houston Texans:

[+] EnlargeJulian Edelman
Troy Taormina/USA TODAY SportsJulian Edelman has 18 catches for 211 yards and two touchdowns over the past two games.
Run defense springs leaks again: The Patriots are struggling to stop the run, as season-ending injuries to defensive tackles Vince Wilfork and Tommy Kelly, as well as linebacker Jerod Mayo, have cut deep. The struggles against the Texans seemed more fundamental, such as getting off blocks and tackling. The Texans rushed for four touchdowns in the game after entering the day with two rushing touchdowns on the season.

Ridley's uncertain future as the lead back: Lead running back Stevan Ridley was a healthy scratch after losing his third fumble in three games Nov. 24 against the Broncos. If Ridley doesn't dress for a game against the two-win Texans, it raises questions as to what type of role he might have down the stretch and in the playoffs. It seems fair to say that his time as the Patriots' lead back has officially reached a crossroads. Shane Vereen took the majority of running back snaps (41 of 70) against the Texans, playing in more traditional sets as he is now positioned to be the team's top option.

Banged-up receivers: Rookie receiver Aaron Dobson was inactive with a foot injury and then his replacement, Kenbrell Thompkins, left the game in the second quarter with a hip injury, and after attempting to play through it, he left the game for good after playing just 15 snaps. That thinned depth at receiver, leaving Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola as the top options, followed by rookie Josh Boyce and special teams captain Matthew Slater. The shortage at the position limits options in terms of personnel groupings and could be something to address if it's clear that Dobson and Thompkins will miss more time.

Edelman positioned for a lucrative payday: Edelman had a big day (nine catches, 101 yards) and upped his season total to 70 receptions, which earns him the maximum incentive in his contract of $250,000. There's good news and bad news for the Patriots in this area. The good news is that Edelman has become a key member of the passing attack, with Tom Brady joking that his nickname for him is "Minitron." The bad news? Edelman is scheduled for unrestricted free agency after the season, and the more he produces, the tougher it could be for the Patriots to retain him.
After fumbling in three straight games, New England Patriots running back Stevan Ridley was a healthy scratch for his team's Week 13 matchup with the Houston Texans on Sunday afternoon.

Following the 34-31 win, during which New England accumulated 87 rushing yards on 27 carries, Patriots coach Bill Belichick offered a simple reason why Ridley was declared inactive for the first time since his rookie season in 2011.

[+] EnlargeLeGarrette Blount
Thomas Campbell/USA TODAY SportsLeGarrette Blount led the Patriots with 12 carries and 44 rushing yards.
"Because there were 46 other players active ahead of him," he said.

The Patriots turned to a four-back attack in Ridley's absence, as LeGarrette Blount led the way with 12 carries for 44 yards and a touchdown, and Shane Vereen added 75 total yards and a receiving touchdown. Brandon Bolden had four total touches, and fullback James Develin scored the first touchdown of his career.

The group drew praise from quarterback Tom Brady after the game.

"LeGarrette ran really hard. Shane's doing a great job for us coming back off being out for a while, and Brandon got a lot of touches, too," he said. "So all those guys contributed. We're going to need them all, that's one of the strengths of our team."

What remains to be seen is how long it will take for Ridley to work his way back into the lineup, as he was benched following his fumble in the first quarter last week.

He's proven to be one of the better between-the-tackles rushers in the NFL when on the field, but ball security has been a problem. He has nine fumbles in 42 career regular-season games, six of which have been lost.

The Patriots next take on the Cleveland Browns, one of seven teams to enter Sunday allowing fewer than 100 yards rushing per game.

That matchup might lead the team to work Ridley back into the mix as they aim to further hit their stride down the stretch.

Bolden, Blount in line for more carries

December, 1, 2013
12/01/13
12:08
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New England Patriots running back Stevan Ridley was announced as inactive for Sunday's game, coming on the heels of three games in which he has fumbled. Earlier Sunday morning, ESPN NFL Insider Adam Schefter reported that the Patriots likely would have used Ridley in a reduced role if he were active, though roster considerations made it necessary to keep Ridley off the field altogether.

Ridley
Ridley
In addition to Ridley, the Patriots announced that defensive end Jake Bequette and linebacker Steve Beauharnais will not play Sunday. The team had previously ruled out wide receiver Aaron Dobson, cornerback Alfonzo Dennard, tight end Michael Hoomanawanui and starting right tackle Marcus Cannon.

The full list of the Patriots' and Texans' inactives is below:

Patriots
LB Steve Beauharnais
DE Jake Bequette
OT Marcus Cannon
CB Alfonzo Dennard
WR Aaron Dobson
TE Michael Hoomanawanui
RB Stevan Ridley

Texans
OT Andrew Gardner
DE Tim Jamison
OG Alex Kupper
DE Ricky Sapp
DB Jawanza Starling
OG Cody White
QB T.J. Yates

Analysis: The big news here is the decision to sit Ridley, the team's best between-the-tackles runner who leads the Patriots in carries, rushing yards and touchdowns. Ultimately, the string of fumbles apparently was too disconcerting for the Patriots' coaching staff, who may hope that a week away can help Ridley recalibrate as the season's home stretch approaches. There are some who believe fumbling is just as much a mental issue as a physical one, and perhaps time off will be what Ridley needs. With Ridley out, the Patriots look likely to lean on Shane Vereen as their up-tempo back, but then it becomes less clear between Brandon Bolden and LeGarrette Blount. Blount has been further up the depth chart for much of the season, but he too fumbled last week, leading to Bolden serving as a primary ball carrier. Given that each is active, it would come as no surprise to see both earn touches as the between-the-tackles runner when the Patriots turn to more of their two-back or two-tight-end sets. A final note is that safety Steve Gregory, who missed a pair of games due to a broken thumb, returns to the lineup.

W2W4: Five things for Patriots-Texans

November, 29, 2013
11/29/13
6:00
PM ET
After consecutive prime-time games, the Patriots will take the field at 1 p.m. ET for the first time in more than a month when they travel to take on the 2-9 Houston Texans.

The buzz and buildup surrounding this game doesn't mirror that which preceded the Panthers and Broncos contests, but the outcome is no less important for the Patriots.

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Their schedule for the rest of the way doesn't include any games against teams with a winning record, and though the Patriots themselves won't be talking about it any time soon, wins over opponents that they are capable of beating will add up as the playoff seeding picture comes into focus.

Against Houston, the Patriots will look to extend the Texans' losing streak to 10 games and push them closer to the top overall pick in the upcoming draft. That's a far way from this time last year when the Texans were a trendy pick to represent the AFC in the Super Bowl after a hot start.

Much has changed since that time, and now the Texans are looking to salvage what's left of their season while the Patriots hope to string wins together as they close in on another AFC East title.

Below is what we'll be watching for this Sunday:

1. Ridley's role. After fumbling in his third straight game last Sunday, Stevan Ridley was benched for three-plus quarters. There's little doubt that Ridley is the Patriots' most talented rusher, but the ball security concerns are impossible to ignore. Head coach Bill Belichick has long preached that the most important part of a running back's job is protecting the football, so it will be interesting to see what role Ridley plays this Sunday. Quarterback Tom Brady said early in the week that the team needs Ridley going forward, but he'll need to prove first that he can be trusted with the ball in his hands.

[+] EnlargeWatt
George Bridges/Getty ImagesIn just his third year in the NFL, J.J. Watt has emerged as one of the most disruptive defensive forces in the league.
2. Blocking Watt. Texans defensive end J.J. Watt is, according to Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels, as disruptive a defensive player as there is in the NFL today. It's hard to argue with that assertion, and McDaniels also noted that every offensive lineman will be in some way responsible to help block Watt, who is on pace for a 15-sack season. The Patriots were able to contain Watt for the most part during a regular-season matchup in 2012, and they'll need to find ways to minimize his impact as a behind the line of scrimmage run defender and pass-rusher.

3. Secondary injuries. The Patriots are dealing with a number of injury issues right now -- as they have all season -- especially in the secondary. Four cornerbacks, Aqib Talib (hip), Alfonzo Dennard (knee), Kyle Arrington (groin) and Marquice Cole (shin), are banged up, while safety Steve Gregory has missed two straight games due to a thumb issue. Dennard missed Thursday's practice before returning to the field on Friday, though none of their statuses for Sunday is exactly clear at this time. Given that the Patriots waived rookie cornerback Justin Green on Tuesday, it's possible they feel their injured cornerbacks have a good shot to play on Sunday.

4. Ground game defense. The Broncos had their way with the Patriots on the ground, finishing with 280 yards on 48 carries. The Texans have traditionally been a strong running team, though a season-ending injury to Arian Foster and cracked ribs for fill-in starter Ben Tate have limited the effectiveness of the ground game this season. The Texans are a dedicated zone-blocking scheme run offense that puts stress on defensive linemen to be able to work laterally down the line and not be caught out of position in their gaps. The Patriots will need to fortify their run defense down the stretch, and Sunday is a good test in Houston.

5. Breaking a streak. The Patriots haven't won a game away from Gillette Stadium since September, and a loss to Houston would give them their first four-game road losing streak since 2000. Coming off of an emotional win, there is always the need to make sure that focus doesn't slip and that the opponent is not overlooked. The Patriots cannot afford to start slow and find themselves having to play catch-up to a team they are fully capable of defeating. Winning is never easy in the NFL, however, and the Patriots need to find a way to get back on track away from home and secure their ninth win of the season.

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