Uncertainty Surrounds The New England Patriots Ground Game
In the current landscape of the National Football League, the concept of having a featured running back who is counted on for 25 to 30 carries a game has become a reality of the past. Given the implementation of unique offensive formations and the fragile state of an average player in today’s NFL, many teams across the league are installing a two running back system. For the Patriots, the running back by committee tactic has been in place since the glory days of Corey Dillon and Antowain Smith.
As we are half way through the 2012 Preseason, the Patriots are holding true to this league-wide trend. Head Coach Bill Belichick made it clear that the team would take the running back by committee approach in 2012 when they opted not to re-sign the rock solid BenJarvus Green-Ellis. With the departure of Green-Ellis to the Cincinnati Bengals, the fate of the Patriots ground game now lies in the hands of two second year running backs, Stevan Ridley and Shane Vereen. While Ridley and Vereen are expected to handle most of the early down work, fan favorite Danny Woodhead is the third head of the team’s unproven rushing attack. Despite having the most experience of the trio, Offensive Coordinator Josh McDaniels, will utilize Woodhead mainly on third down due to his pass catching ability and lack of power as a straight ahead rusher.
Despite the lack of experience amongst the Patriots running backs, there is undoubtably some untapped potential in both Ridley and Vereen. Ridley, who was a starter at college football powerhouse LSU, saw action in 14 games last season, more so towards the end of the regular season. In weeks 15 through 17, Ridley rushed for a combined 210 yards, averaging more than 5 yards per carry. Despite the small sample size, Ridley showed some promise during his limited reps at running back. At 5 yards a carry, Ridley would find playing time in any NFL backfield. This level of production towards the end of the 2011 season provided Belichick with enough ammo to part ways with Green-Ellis come the offseason.
With Ridley shaping up to be option A for Bill Belichick’s rushing attack, option B (Shane Vereen), is not far behind in the race for carries. As a second year player out of Cal, Vereen saw limited action during his rookie campaign as he was restricted for a majority of the season by a sore hamstring. While only appearing in 5 games last season, it’s his colleagiate production that has Patriots coaches salivating. During his 3 years at Cal, Vereen posted outstanding numbers rushing for 29 touchdowns and almost 3,000 yards. With Ridley tied to the sidelines due to a banged up knee, Vereen was given the opportunity to receive a majority of the carries this past Monday night against the Eagles. While rushing for only 20 yards on 10 carries, Vereen flaunted his ability to make plays out of the backfield as he recorded 4 catches on the night.
Expectations going into the regular season are that Stevan Ridley and Shane Vereen will take on a large chunk of the ground work. While Ridley and Vereen will battle for carries on first and second down, it is anticipated that Belichick will involve the more proven Danny Woodhead on passing downs and in special offensive packages, similarly to how he has been used the previous two seasons. After Ridley, Vereen, and Woodhead, the remainder of the Patriots backfield will likely remain irrelevant barring any injuries. Undrafted rookie, Brandon Bolden, is still fighting for a roster spot and only hurt his chances against the Eagles by muffing a punt in the 2nd quarter. On a side note, the Patriots also recently signed Olympic silver medalist and former University of Florida star, Jeff Demps. Despite putting up good rushing numbers at Florida, Demps will primarly be used as a return man on special teams, especially given his time away from football to particpate in the Olympics as a sprinter.
For now, Patriots fans should expect the rotation of Stevan Ridley, Shane Vereen, and Danny Woodhead in the backfield. While the team will start the season with a running back by committee approach, Patriots coaches and fans alike will be closely monitoring the situation, looking for any signs of a breakout from most specifically Ridley or Vereen. With Ridley, Vereen, and Woodhead all serving as viable options for the Patriots ground game, the team will still be seen and defended as a pass first offense under the leadership of Tom Brady. With the bar set low for these young running backs, the opportunity is available for one these guys to surprise the rest of the league and put forth a productive season.