BenJarvus Green-Ellis. Laurence Maroney. Sammy Morris. Corey Dillon. Antowain Smith.
Not your typical list of first-choice running backs. Some maybe not even your second.
But don’t tell Bill Belichick that.
Together, the five backs account for the past 10 seasons of rushing leaders for the New England Patriots.
Alone, it’s a scary thought. When you take into consideration that they haven’t had a top-15 rusher since 2004, it’s downright frightening.
It’s the sure-fire Achilles heel for a Patriots team that has still managed three Super Bowl titles during the Belichick era. However, one has to believe that more Lombardi Trophies would have made their way back to Foxboro had the Patriots possessed a more formidable rushing attack.
As they say, the proof is in the pudding.
After rushing for over 120 yards in each of their three Super Bowl victories (2001, 2003, 2004), the Patriots only recorded a combined 118 yards in a pair of Super Bowl defeats (2007, 2011).
Having nursed late leads in both losses, the Patriots failed to come up with that finishing blow. Perhaps a more threatening ground game may have proven to be the difference between the “Team of the Decade” and the “Team of the Century.”
After an offseason full of many questions regarding the backfield, second-year running back Stevan Ridley just might be the answer.
All together, it’s a performance that has provided fans in New England with hope that the team has finally developed a ground game that can keep opposing defenses in check.
It’s an opportunity that the former LSU team captain nearly threw away at the tail end of last season.
After fumbling during the Patriots’ AFC divisional round game against the Denver Broncos, Ridley was quickly benched for the remainder of the playoffs. The fumble marked the second straight game that he had put the ball on the floor—an offense that was deemed unacceptable after Ridley’s counterpart, Green-Ellis, went four full seasons without one.
However, Belichick still saw enough potential in the 23-year-old that he allowed Green-Ellis to walk during the offseason. It provides Ridley with a second chance—one he’s ready to make good on.
While the rest of the league may have been taken off-guard by Ridley’s stellar Week 1 play, the Patriots had a hunch that this type of outburst was on the horizon.
After an offseason of hard work, Ridley showed much improvement during the preseason. Included was an 87-yard effort on 16 carries to go along with a touchdown against the Philadelphia Eagles.
Improving week after week, Sunday’s performance was inevitable.
But just how good was Ridley against the Titans?
For starters, Sunday’s showing marked the most Week 1 rushing yards by a Patriots running back since 1982. Ridley ranks second all-time in the category behind Tony Collins’ 137-yard output.
Then there’s the fact that Ridley hauled off five carries that went for 15 yards or more. According to the Elias Sports Bureau (via ESPN), no Patriots running back in the last 25 years has been able to match the same feat.
In fact, during the entire 2011 season, only two backs had five 15-yard runs in the same game: Chris Johnson and Steven Jackson. Not bad company to be in.
But the most impressive feat Ridley accomplished on Sunday was his 10 first-down runs. The former third-round pick currently leads the league in such runs.
Nearly 50 percent of Ridley’s carries on Sunday resulted in moving the chains—a quality that could have been extremely helpful in the Patriots' effort to eat up the clock during last season’s Super Bowl defeat to the New York Giants.
But the Patriots aren’t wasting their time on the “what-ifs”. They’re more focused on “What now?”
If Sunday is any inclination, Ridley and the rest of his teammates could be looking at another deep postseason run.
This time, when the game’s on the line, there’s only one number Belichick will be calling on to get that crucial first down.
It’ll be Ridley’s…believe it not.