Stevan Ridley has won the No. 1 position on the depth chart outright and will see the majority of the carries in the New England Patriots' new-found running game.
There are still doubters after Week 2, but the Ridley Express is leaving the station whether they like it or not.
Questions loom as Ridley's career is poised to take off: Can the second-year back sustain the physical beating of a full 16-game season? Is he capable of consistent play to reach the 1,000-yard mark? Will the Patriots' offense be able to effectively utilize the run game each week and still win games?
Ridley has the potential to be a solid feature back in the NFL. He put up stellar numbers in Week 1, rushing for 125 yards on 21 carries and one touchdown. It was the second-highest rushing total for a single back in a Patriots Week 1 game, according to Jeremy Lundblad of ESPN Boston.
Furthermore, in the same game against the Titans in Week 1, Ridley amassed a carry of 15 yards or more five times, which is something that hasn't been done in a Patriots jersey in at least 25 years.
Consistency is key in the NFL, and in Week 2, Ridley rushed for 71 yards on 18 carries and tacked on three catches for 24 yards—a total of 95 yards from scrimmage. He also added on three more 15-plus-yard rushes.
Those numbers are more impressive when considering how dreadful the offensive line played against the Cardinals in Week 2. Holes collapsed quickly and the line was unable to get much penetration at Gillette Stadium on Sunday.
Discounting those Week 2 numbers for a moment, Lundblad also reported that in the first 108 carries of his career—which includes 87 from 2011—Ridley had accumulated more rushing yards than any running back in Patriots history (558).
He averaged 5.1 yards per carry last season, and through two games in 2012 is averaging 5.0 yards.
So is Ridley the real deal?
Let's keep looking.
Ridley is a hard runner who gains most of his yards after contact and thus is able to stretch short gains into first downs.
In Week 1, he averaged 3.9 yards after contact (via Pro Football Focus) and gained most of his 71 rushing yards in Week 2 after an initial hit.
The former LSU man knows he is going to take a beating every week, but if the production is there, it is all worth it.
Ridley captured this mentality when speaking with Jeff Howe of the Boston Herald:
You can’t play the position being scared. You’re going to take a lot of contact, but as a runner, if you can try to deliver the blow instead of taking the hit, I think your career might last a little bit longer. That’s kind of my philosophy running the ball. I’m trying to get downhill and deliver the punch instead of taking all the beatings.
At 23 years old, Ridley has plenty of mileage left to put on those legs.
During his tenure at LSU, he did not gain the starting job until his junior year, when he rushed 249 times for 1,147 yards and 15 scores. In total, he compiled 306 carries for 1,419 yards and 19 touchdowns in three seasons.
Fellow second-year back Shane Vereen was slated to split carries with Ridley in 2012, but a foot injury has kept him out of regular-season play through the first two weeks. Danny Woodhead has been used occasionally out of the backfield as a change of pace. He is a bit quicker than Ridley and has a knack for slipping through holes.
Ridley's performance, however, has allowed him to acquire the respect of his coaching staff, the trust of his quarterback and the admiration of the fans.
This is made evident by the balanced offense we have seen from the Patriots and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels in 2012.
The team averaged 27.4 rushing attempts per game last season. Through two games this year, they are averaging 31.5 attempts per game, which is good for fifth-most in the NFL.
Ridley has a tough matchup against one of the most feared defenses in the league in Week 3, the Baltimore Ravens. Their run defense has not been flattering in 2012, allowing 129 rushing yards per game. That statistic should not be taken for granted, though, especially with the small sample size of only two games played this year
So I pose the question again: Is Stevan Ridley the real deal?
Yes. I'd bet a Super Bowl championship on it.
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