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Breaking Down the New England Patriots' Loaded Backfield

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Breaking Down the New England Patriots' Loaded Backfield
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With all the turnover at wide receiver, there may be an increased focus on the running game in the New England Patriots offense this year.

That would continue a trend of the past few years, in which the offense has come to rely more on its ground attack as it has turned toward a balanced attack.

Running back Stevan Ridley, entering his third year with the team, has gotten used to playing second fiddle to quarterback Tom Brady, but says that there's a high standard from the coaches for the running backs to contribute in all facets of the game.

Monday through Saturday, they’re emphasizing with us to be complete backs. By complete backs, that’s all around—running the ball, catching the ball and blocking out of the backfield. We’ve lost some guys, but we’ve replaced some guys. It’s new faces at the receiving corps, and that’s scary to the fans, but, to me, it’s going show a new group of guys who are hungry and want to go out there and make a name for themselves.

It's rare to find a "complete" back in today's NFL—that being one who doesn't come off the field in any situation—but with their depth, the Patriots have all the versatility they need.

 

Stevan Ridley

Strengths

  • vision
  • toughness between the tackles
  • explosiveness

Weaknesses

  • lateral quickness
  • pass protection/pass-catching
  • ball security

There's little doubt about Stevan Ridley's status as the feature back in the Patriots offense. He had 290 rushing attempts in 2012, more than any Patriots running back in a single year since Corey Dillon had 345 in 2004.

He remains their best option on first and second downs for his ability to run hard both between the tackles and to bounce runs to the outside as a one-cut back. His role on passing downs could increase, as he has shown improved hands and explosiveness in catching a few passes out of the backfield in Patriots practices at training camp. 

The concern with Ridley is ball security. It was a storyline headed into the 2012 season after he fumbled twice in 91 carries (regular season and postseason). His fumble rate dropped a bit in 2012 with five fumbles in 323 combined regular-season and postseason carries, including one fumble that arguably helped end the Patriots season in the AFC championship game against the Ravens. He fumbled twice in practice on Sunday and will need to continue to work on that area of his game.

 

Shane Vereen

Strengths 

  • straight-line speed
  • lateral quickness
  • soft hands

Weaknesses

  • vision 
  • toughness between the tackles
  • trouble staying healthy

Former Patriots running back Kevin Faulk carved out a niche for himself as the team's third-down running back, with the ability to catch passes out of the backfield, pick up blitzes in pass protection and occasionally run the ball, typically on draw plays.

That looks like what the Patriots will be asking of third-year running back Shane Vereen. In fact, they may ask him to be even more of a utility player than Faulk. Vereen had seven receptions in the playoffs, including two touchdowns, and lined up as a receiver for several of those catches.

On this catch, he put his crisp route-running on display with a short curl pattern on the right sideline. 

Once he caught the pass, he put his elusiveness on display as he escaped a tackle and picked up 25 yards.

Vereen had trouble staying healthy in his rookie season and missed some time in the 2012 preseason and early on in the season with a foot injury. He began playing a significantly higher percentage of snaps down the stretch, though.

If he can stay on the field, he figures to be a bigger part of the Patriots' game plan in 2013.

 

Brandon Bolden

Strengths

  • toughness between the tackles
  • ball security
  • decisive runner

Weaknesses

  • speed
  • pass protection/pass-catching 
  • lacks explosive burst

With Danny Woodhead leaving the Patriots for the Chargers this offseason, the role of the primary backup to Ridley is vacant. He's not incredibly explosive as a runner, but he has good speed when he gets going. In some ways, his abilities between the tackles and decisiveness make him a perfect complement to Ridley when the lead back needs a break. Bolden's role could be limited, though, as he caught just two passes all last season.

He flashed the ability to be a great change-of-pace back last year, particularly in two games—against the Buffalo Bills and the Denver Broncos. That being said, he earned half of his rushing yards (137 out of 274) in one game against the Bills defense, the second-worst unit against the run in 2012.

He earned 30 carries in those two games and just 26 carries on the rest of the season. He could get more opportunities in 2013, but the Patriots can't afford him to miss more games—he was suspended for four games in 2012 due to a violation of the league's policy on performance-enhancing drugs and missed the team's OTAs with a sprained ankle. He has been a full participant in training camp to this point.

 

LeGarrette Blount

Strengths

  • power running
  • vision
  • pass protection

Weaknesses

  • pass-catching
  • speed
  • lateral quickness

LeGarrette Blount showed a tremendous amount of potential from 2010 to 2011, but when the Buccaneers drafted Doug Martin in the first round in 2012, it was a sign of things to come. The rookie back received 319 carries, the fourth-most for any back last year.

It was surprising, seeing Blount had been a human highlight reel the two previous years, but not surprising at all, because Martin had one of the finest seasons for a rookie back in recent memory.

He is not known for an explosive style of running. He's not particularly elusive and doesn't present much of a threat as a pass-catcher out of the backfield.

In all, his game is fairly limited, but he has good toughness to run between the tackles. He ranked sixth out of 56 backs in average yards after contact in 2011 with 2.9, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), but that number dipped to 1.83 in 2012.

He can bounce runs to the outside, but lateral quickness is not a strength of his by any stretch. With all that said, it looks like Blount and Bolden may be battling for the same spot in the Patriots backfield, and right now, that's a battle Bolden is winning.

The Patriots traded running back Jeff Demps and a 2013 seventh-round pick to the Buccaneers for Blount, but the price they gave up does not guarantee him a roster spot. In fact, Blount's salary was slashed from $1.2 million to $630,000 when the trade went down, making him more expendable should the Patriots opt to part ways.

 

Leon Washington

Strengths

  • dynamic kickoff returner
  • speed
  • pass-catching

Weaknesses

  • light workload
  • age (will be 31 in August)
  • special teams "niche" player?

The Patriots have felt the burn of Leon Washington's afterburners on at least one occasion, when the dynamic kickoff returner brought one back for a touchdown in 2008. He has always been a threat in that area, with eight career kickoffs returned for touchdowns.

He even willed the Seahawks to victory with two kickoffs returned for touchdowns in one game against the Chargers, including this doozie

He's still capable in that area and ranked second in the league in average kickoff return yardage with 29 in 2012. 

The question with Washington is how much of a role he can have in the backfield. It looked like Washington was on his way to becoming one of the better complementary backs in the league with 72 carries in the first seven games of the 2009 season, but an injury cut his season short. He joined the Seahawks in 2010 and has not tallied more than 53 carries in a season since then. 

He was also making an impact as a pass-catcher out of the backfield prior to that, with 108 receptions in the first three years of his career. In the four years since then, he has caught just 38 passes.

If he's healthy and up to the task, Washington could provide depth in the Patriots' search for a third-down back.

In any case, there's still a lot of value for a player like Washington, who can offer his dynamic skills in the return game no matter what the circumstance.

 

Conclusions

All the backs on the Patriots depth chart have clear-cut roles in the offense, with Ridley being the closest thing the Patriots have to a complete back. Bolden is a both better short-yardage and goal-line back, while Vereen and Washington have skills that make them valuable on third down and in other passing situations. Blount is something of an enigma; he has the body for a short-yardage back, and can be effective in that role at times, but he leaves something to be desired there.

Although Ridley was the only back with over 70 carries last year, both Blount (201 carries in 2010, 184 carries in 2011) and Washington (151 carries in 2006 and 70-plus carries from 2007-2009) have both been the top or second option in an NFL backfield.

Whether we'll see the Patriots put multiple backs on the field at a time remains a big question mark. Josh McDaniels has never been a big proponent of two-back sets, and the Patriots still have some talent at receiver despite having lost both Wes Welker and Aaron Hernandez this offseason.

If we were to see two backs on the field at once for the Patriots, it would likely be to pair one of the true runners like Ridley, Bolden or Blount with a pass-catching back like Vereen or Washington. That sort of combination would maintain the threat of the run while potentially creating a mismatch in the passing game.

Of course, all five backs must first make the roster (with a focus on Blount in that regard) for any of this to carry weight.

 

Erik Frenz is also a Patriots/AFC East writer for Boston.com. Unless otherwise noted, all stats obtained from the Sports-Reference.com network and all quotes obtained firsthand or via team press releases.

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