Have the New England Patriots finally found their big-play threat at running back?
On Sunday against the Tennessee Titans, Stevan Ridley rushed for 125 yards on 21 carries. That's the second most rushing yards ever by a Patriots running back in Week 1 behind Tony Collins' 137 yards in 1982. No New England back had even cracked triple digits since Curtis Martin in 1995.
Those numbers are impressive. Even more notable is how Ridley got those yards.
Ridley had five carries that went for 15 yards or more. No Patriots running back in at least the past 25 years has done that in a single game, according to the Elias Sports Bureau. Not John Stephens, not Curtis Martin, not Corey Dillon.
The big running play had been noticeably absent from New England's attack for several seasons.
BenJarvus Green-Ellis provided a great deal of stability to the running game -- he never fumbled and he provided consistent gains in short yardage -- but the big play simply wasn't in his repertoire. In fact, Green-Ellis had just four 15-yard runs all last season -- one fewer than Ridley managed in his first game as a primary back.
In 510 carries with the Patriots, Green-Ellis totaled 15 carries for 15 yards or more. Ridley has equaled that total in one-fifth the number of runs.
Ridley's 566 rushing yards are most in Patriots history through 108 career carries by a player who started his career in New England. It's even more than Dillon had through 108 carries when he set the franchise record for yards in 2004.
Ridley's big game was more than just one big gain padded by shorter carries. He consistently found holes, broke tackles and evaded defenders. According to Pro Football Focus, his 3.9 yards after contact per attempt were the most for any running back with at least 10 attempts on Sunday.
But he also did something that Green-Ellis rarely did: made defenders miss tackles. Pro Football Focus counted five missed tackles on Ridley on Sunday. Green-Ellis had 19 all of last season.
Of course, there's plenty of reason for tempered expectations. Above all, it was just one game.
Ridley fell to the third round of the 2011 draft with a reputation as a downhill runner without great speed or the ability to make defenders miss. He ran an unimpressive 4.65 in the 40 at the combine. That would be pretty good speed for a quarterback or a linebacker. But at running back, teammate Shane Vereen's 4.49 is closer to the standard.
His breakout game also came in first week of the season, when opposing defenses aren't quite clicking. Chad Henne didn't turn into Dan Marino last year, even though he looked like it in Week 1 against the Patriots.
The fact his performance came against Titans also calls for restraint. Last season, Ben Tate, LeGarrette Blount, Jonathan Dwyer and Donald Brown all cracked 100 yards against the Titans' run defense, which ranked 24th in the NFL.
With those overreaction caveats aside, what if Ridley is the real deal? What if the Patriots have added a legitimate running threat to their arsenal?
It's become a common refrain that the Patriots' short passing game made the running game redundant. Why settle for a 3-yard run when a quick hit to Wes Welker would bring you 5 yards?
But Ridley's emergence in Week 1 offered a reminder that the running back can also be a big-play weapon. That offensive diversity produces wins.
Consider that the Patriots have now won 18 straight games (and 31 of their past 32) in which they've had a 100-yard rusher. In the Tom Brady era, New England is 35-1 when rushing for 150 or more yards as a team. By contrast, New England has lost two of Welker's three biggest yardage games.
New England's two-tight end offense gains even more versatility with a quality running game that better uses the added blocking skills of tight ends. Last season, the Patriots averaged just 3.4 yards per carry when deploying two tight ends. Imagine how much more difficult covering Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski becomes if defenses need to worry about the run.
Of course, a consistent running attack also helps control the clock. In 2011, the Patriots bucked logic by winning eight games in which their opponent controlled the ball for the majority of the game. New England finished 13-3 despite finishing 26th in time of possession.
In the Brady era, the Patriots are 81-8 when holding the ball for at least 31 minutes. Compare that to 54-34 when they possess the ball for fewer than 31 minutes.
On Sunday, Ridley helped control the clock, as the Patriots held the ball for more than 31 minutes. He became the first Patriots player to rush for 10 first downs since Martin in 1996. In other words, 47 percent of Ridley's carries moved the chains. That includes all three of his third-down runs.
Those are numbers that keep the clock moving and prevent comebacks. From 2009 to 2010, the Patriots lost five games in which they held a double-digit halftime lead. That doesn't happen with a consistent running game.
After an offseason anticipating the arrival of receiver Brandon Lloyd and the return of the deep ball, perhaps the biggest new threat was already on the roster.