The Ridley Riddle
PATRIOTS HAVE NO CHOICE
It's hard to dispute the fact that ball security has become an issue for Stevan Ridley. After all, he's fumbled twice in the past two games, which almost undoubtedly led to a decreased workload for him in the second half of Sunday night's loss to the San Francisco 49ers.
"We've got to fix our mistakes, starting with me," Ridley said after the game. "You can make excuses, or (you can) man up and say, 'We messed up.' And that's what we did today."
It's not the first time Ridley has needed to work through the issue this season. He set season highs in Week 5 against the Denver Broncos with 151 yards on 28 carries, but he also lost his first fumble of the season in that game. The team relied on him less after that, but Ridley still produced, and he didn't fumble again until Week 14.
It's that production that makes this situation different than late last season, when Ridley did not play in the final two playoff games after fumbling in each of the three games prior to that. Ridley was just a rookie, and he needed the punishment as a method of teaching. The Patriots could rely on BenJarvus Green-Ellis while Ridley made ball security his focus.
But Green-Ellis is gone, and Ridley is the workhorse of the Patriots' running game, which has a renewed focus in the offense this season. The Patriots have rushed for less than 100 yards in just four games this season, all of which were losses. Even if the Patriots were to turn to 2011 second-round pick Shane Vereen, he also fumbled in Sunday night's game, so there's no clear upgrade there.
At this point, the Patriots surely can't be happy with Ridley's ball security issues, but they don't have a choice. They need a strong running game to be successful in what is looking like a tough road to New Orleans and Super Bowl XLVII.
TRUST SHOULDN'T COME EASY
"There's nothing more important than possession of the ball. We can't afford to lose it. It's as simple as that."
Those were the words of Bill Belichick on Oct. 8, in response to a question of how he would handle Stevan Ridley's playing time going forward after a Week 5 fumble.
Belichick's words were of note then and remain noteworthy now, as Ridley has fumbled in consecutive weeks, losing one, the same pattern of ball security he exhibited between Weeks 4 and 5 earlier this season. After losing a fumble against the Niners early in the third quarter of Sunday's game, he played just one snap the rest of the way.
Dependability has long been the trait the Patriots seek in running backs, and because of his recent performance, Ridley has to earn back the trust he had built up as he emerged as the team's top back. He has 1,105 rushing yards on the season, ninth-best in the NFL, but he also has four fumbles, tied for the most among the top 20 running backs in the league.
This isn't to suggest that Ridley needs to be carved out of the game plan; not at all, he's the team's best runner. But before the Patriots fall back on Ridley as their workhorse, he needs to show he can take care of job No. 1 for running backs: ball security.
A strength of the Patriots' offense rests in its multiplicity: It can beat you through the air or on the ground and also with a reliance on different players each week. In Week 15, it was Danny Woodhead who stepped up in the backfield. This is to say that the Patriots' offense doesn't need to rely on a single back for 20-25 carries a week to be successful.
So while Ridley remains a critical part to the team's success both now and going forward, he must first show he is as reliable with the football as the team expects him to be.