Stevan Ridley had a chance to be a breakout rookie during the Patriots’ march to the Super Bowl last season. But the young running back’s fatal flaw forced him to the sidelines for nearly the entire playoff run.
Ridley, who has emerged as one of the NFL’s best tailbacks this season, has shown a tendency to fumble during his first two seasons. Two fumbles late in 2011 were cause enough for Ridley’s postseason benching, and the issue appears to be rearing its ugly head once again.
After putting the ball on the ground in back-to-back weeks earlier this season (Week 4 at Buffalo and Week 5 vs. Denver), Ridley responded with seven consecutive fumble-free games. But the past two weeks have seen a return of the touchy trouble.
Ridley has fumbled once in each of the past two games. He got a lucky bounce against the Texans as Aaron Hernandez was close by to jump on the ball. But his mistake proved costly against the 49ers, who were able to scoop up the drop and turn it into points on the very next play, further extending their already commanding lead.
This season, Ridley’s been a pleasant surprise. He’s rushed for 1,105 rushing yards and 10 touchdowns, and he’s helped the Patriots clinch far more wins than he’s cost them in losses. But even so, Ridley knows that his slippery fingers are merely unacceptable.
“You can’t have balls on the ground. You can’t have turnovers,” Ridley said after Sunday night’s 41-34 loss. “I have to do better in game situations holding onto the football. We can’t have mistakes like that.”
The Patriots have given the ball away just 14 times this season, good enough for second least in the league. But Ridley’s four fumbles tie him for second most among running backs, trailing only the Broncos’ Willis McGahee (five) for the league lead, which raises some concern. There isn’t much the Patriots can do about the penchant problem, though.
While Bill Belichick had the option of sitting the standout back last season, thanks to the presence of BenJarvus Green-Ellis, he doesn’t have that same luxury this season. Ridley has become an integral part of this redeveloped Patriots offense. His effective running has established a long sought-after ground game for New England and taken some pressure off Tom Brady. But none of that will matter much if Ridley isn’t able to hang onto the football, especially heading into the playoffs.
Ridley has taken responsibility for his ball-security failings and has put a considerable amount of pressure on himself to ensure the trend doesn’t continue. So, while the problem is worrisome, Ridley’s focus and resolve to fix the issue are encouraging signs.
“No one is harder on myself than me. Nobody is more upset when I fumble than Stevan is,” Ridley said. “For me I just have to keep working.”
Ridley has done a very good job for most of the season, securing and protecting the football. So, although there’s been an increase of late, the trend shouldn’t persist for too long. Oh, and if the work Ridley’s talking about here is anything similar to that which he put in this summer in preparation of becoming the starting tailback, then the Patriots shouldn’t be worried at all.