It shouldn’t be a surprise.
Paced by Brandon Bolden and Stevan Ridley, the Patriots gained 247 yards on the ground as both eclipsed 100 yards on the afternoon. It was the first time since 1980 New England had two running backs with at least 100 rushing yards when Don Calhoun (106 yards) and Vegas Ferguson (100) combined for the accomplishment.
It’s wise to hesitate when evaluating the ability of young players with little to nothing accomplished in the NFL; but for second-year Ridley and rookie Bolden, they quickly showed talent with the ball in their hands.
With offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels running the ball more than expected, Ridley and Bolden likely will share the workhorse role in the backfield. The Patriots are ahead of the pace set last year—576 yards to 481—and New England’s rush offense is ranked eighth in the NFL.
If New England can continue to run the ball effectively, the ground game will be respected, not just keeping defenses honest.
Expectations were depressed after the Patriots let reliable RB BenJarvus Green-Ellis leave as a free agent. He was a hard-nosed inside runner known for grinding out tough yards and never fumbling the ball in 536 touches.
But it was clear last year that Ridley was a better than Green-Ellis. Ridley was quicker and faster than the plodding Green-Ellis. In limited carries, Ridley averaged 5.1 yards-per-carry, highlighted by 97 yards on just 10 carries against Oakland in week four.
By Week 15 Ridley was getting more carries in games than Green-Ellis. Ridley would have taken the starting job outright if he didn’t fumble in the season finale against Buffalo. After he did it again against Denver in the playoffs, Ridley was benched for the AFC Championship and Super Bowl XLVI to reinforce the value of ball security.
The job is Ridley’s for 2012 and he already has two 100-yard performances. Ridley currently leads the head-to-head with Green-Ellis in yards—339 to 286—and in yards-per-carry, 4.6 to 3.5. Ridley probably would be blowing Green-Ellis away if it wasn’t for Bolden.
Regardless of the confidence the coaching staff has in Ridley, he would split the carries. Shane Vereen was the favorite to compliment Ridley because the differences in style would give defenses headaches adjusting between the two.
But injuries again knocked Vereen off track, allowing the opportunity for Bolden to take advantage.
Bolden was immediately compared to Green-Ellis because they are both Ole Miss products and they were signed by New England as undrafted rookie free agents. But that’s where the comparison ends. Talent-wise, Bolden is a better back; he would do to Green-Ellis what Ridley did to Green-Ellis.
Bolden will have to settle for pushing Ridley instead. Bolden did well during the preseason and secured a roster spot. When given a chance to pull his weight, Bolden went off for 137 yards on 16 carries.
Typical backfield tandems consist of a workhorse and a change of pace back with very different skills. Ridley and Bolden are unique because they are similarly built. Both are 5'11" and only five pounds separate the two, with the edge in Ridley’s favor.
But they are different enough style-wise to be an effective 1-2 combo; Bolden cuts once and goes while Ridley is a shifty runner able to make tacklers miss.
Otherwise, they’re quick to the hole physical runners that finish their carries, have the speed to break long gains and look comfortable catching the ball. As long as the Patriots continue to emphasize the ground game, they have two effective runners that can do much of the heavy lifting in the backfield.
Not that it should a surprise to anyone, though.
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