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Sunday, October 7, 2012
Stevan Ridley stars again

By Field Yates
Special to ESPNBoston.com

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- In a matchup pitting two of the NFL's top quarterbacks, it was the running game of the New England Patriots, led by Stevan Ridley, that stole the show on Sunday in the team's Week 5 win over the Denver Broncos.

For the second consecutive game, the Patriots easily surpassed the 200-yard mark on the ground, bypassing their Week 4 effort of 247 yards with 251 more on Sunday.

Balance amongst running backs wasn't quite as prevalent as it was a week ago, as Ridley manned the heavy lifting with 28 carries -- twice as many as Brandon Bolden -- producing a career-best 151 yards and a touchdown.

But balance between running and throwing the football was, and that, according to Ridley, was a key to his offense's success.

"For us, we're a better offense; any offense is better when it's balanced," he said. "We just try to take as much pressure off of Tom [Brady] and our receivers as we can."

Balance on offense is a focus Ridley says head coach Bill Belichick has stressed dating back to the end of last season.

Stevan Ridley
Stevan Ridley rushed for a career-high 151 yards.

"It wasn't anything that's been new to him or something we didn't know. We've been working on this for a long time, and we're going to continue to work on this until he's satisfied," Ridley said. "You all know how that goes, Coach is never satisfied [laughs]. So we'll be working on it for days and the next few weeks."

Quarterback Tom Brady echoed the importance of balance in his postgame remarks.

"Well, I think there's no question that really helps the way we're playing offensively when we're able to run the football like we're doing," Brady said. "You just can't drop back and throw it 60 times every game. You have to be balanced and I think we're doing a very good job of when we're calling the runs, we're executing them."

One key to the Patriots' success on the ground was their ability to take advantage of a personnel mismatch, generated by their up-tempo, spread-based offense.

Broncos coach John Fox said after the game that his team opted to implement more of its sub defense packages to counter the Patriots' spread attack. He cited the diversity of the Patriots' tight ends, which forces defenses into a difficult predicament because the Patriots can both run and pass effectively with them on the field.

"They do a good job because they have some tough matchups with those tight ends," Fox said. "And you know, some people chose and we did early, kind of adjusted as it went, to put more athletic smaller people out there to defend them because they do spread it out pretty good. So, it's matchups and once you get the little guys out there, it's a little more inviting to run against."

In Week 4, the Patriots were able to achieve the same success in exposing a smaller, more athletic defensive front that the Bills relied upon throughout the course of the game to counter New England's up-tempo attack.

Brady noted that for the second consecutive week, his offense was able to take advantage of the defensive personnel on the field.

"We're just trying to put a lot of pressure on those guys to get their calls in and line up and play against us," he continued. "We're running the ball against some very advantageous looks and we're throwing the ball against some advantageous looks and I think the important part is to be able to do both. You can't just throw it all day. You can't run it all day. You have to be able to do both. It's been pretty good the last few weeks."

Brady's assessment is modest, as the Patriots' performance in recent weeks has been more than pretty good; it's been exceptional.

In fact, the Patriots haven't rushed for 200-plus yards or three-plus rushing touchdowns in consecutives weeks since 1978.

That's a testament to the running ability of Ridley, whose 151 yards was the highest total for a Patriots' back since 2007. He has firmly established himself as the Patriots' lead back, and is quickly becoming an offensive cornerstone. He has shown a knack for putting together chains-moving runs, as well as gathering additional yards after contact.

While fumbles remain a concern for the second-year player -- he put the ball on the ground for the second consecutive week on Sunday -- he has shown an ability to absorb a heavy load, with 102 carries through five games. The Patriots have lacked a dynamic and dependable player in the backfield since Corey Dillon.

Ridley is on pace for 1,568 yards this season on the ground, which would be the most from a Patriots' running back since Dillon's 2004 output of 1,635.

And not to be lost in Ridley's success is the play of his offensive line, which both he and Belichick shared praise for after the game.

"Our offensive line is getting good push up front, so we're just hitting the holes that are there," he said. "Trying to get down hill, and make yards fast."

"The offensive line did a good job," Belichick added. "We played at a good tempo, played fast and I think their conditioning and hard work all through practice, training camp and all that, to go out there and be able to not only block them, but play at a high tempo and play fast and do it with good conditioning and good technique and all, that was good."

Entering the 2012 season there was little question the Patriots would be able to throw the football successfully, having beefed up a passing attack that accounted for more than 5,000 yards a season ago.

But questions remained in the backfield, where the team lacked a veteran presence after opting not to re-sign Kevin Faulk and releasing Joseph Addai prior to the start of training camp.

With Ridley out in front, the quartet of young runners has squelched those concerns, and made this offense as dangerous as it has been in quite some time.

Field Yates covers the Patriots for ESPNBoston.com.