Stevan Ridley Running Wild, Filling Voids Left by Aqib Talib, Jerod Mayo Among Keys for Patriots Against Jets

Stevan RidleyRob Gronkowski made the trip south and all signs are pointing toward the mammoth tight end making his return to game action on Sunday. Tom Brady must be happy.

The Patriots offense has made some big strides in recent weeks, namely last week in the comeback win over the Saints, and Gronkowski’s insertion into that unit will only help make them even better. Brady has already built a solid rapport with Julian Edelman, Aaron Dobson and Kenbrell Thompkins, and adding Gronk to that mix gives him just one more weapon to rely upon.

While all the optimism surrounding Gronkowski has garnered the headlines in recent days, the Patriots are without a few of their key defensive playmakers, and they could feel the pain of that gaping hole on Sunday. Jerod Mayo went on injured reserve earlier this week and cornerback Aqib Talib, who has been the team’s best defensive player this season, has already been ruled out  with a hip injury. Dont’a Hightower, Alfonzo Dennard and Kyle Arrington are all ready to step in and fill those voids, but it won’t be easy for the Patriots to replace such key contributors.

The Jets gave Brady and the Patriots all they could handle in Week 2, with the Patriots just barely sneaking by with a 13-10 win. At 3-3 on the season, Rex Ryan and the Jets are actually believing in themselves and will surely give the Patriots all they can handle in the Meadowlands on Sunday. There’s a lot to look out for in this one if the Patriots hope to move to 6-1 on the year, so let’s jump in and see what some of the keys are in this week’s Patriots Three and Out.

1. Gronk, Gronk, Gronk, Gronk, Gronk – He’s back! Well, at least that’s what it’s looking like. Gronkowski traveled with the Patriots to New Jersey for their game with the Jets on Sunday, and all signs would indicate that the All-World tight end will be on the field with Tom Brady and the offense come Sunday at 1 p.m.

Even though it will be his first action of the season, Gronkowski should be ready to go at full speed. That was Bill Belichick‘s purpose of taking Gronkowski off the PUP list in the first place. Keeping him on the active roster not only gave the Patriots the chance of him returning sooner than Week 7, but it also allowed him to practice with the team over the last seven weeks. That should have him nice and settled into the offense from the get-go. Sure there might be a little lag, at least to start the game, but there shouldn’t be too much rust to knock off, especially if he has been playing as well as reported during practices.

With Gronk back in the fold, Brady should find more comfort in the passing game and improve what is currently the NFL’s 19th-best passing unit. Gronkowski should offer a major lift in the red zone, too, seeing that the Patriots are 30th in the NFL in red zone efficiency this season – -a far cry from their third-place finish in 2012. If he can get acclimated early in the game and make his presence felt, it will force the Jets to divert some attention away from the run game and drop more linebackers into coverage. Who knows, maybe we’ll even catch a Gronk spike or two.

2. Run Ridley – Speaking of the running game, Stevan Ridley looked damn good last week. After a week’s absence, Ridley made his presence felt against the Saints, finally looking like the same guy who rushed for over 1,200 yards a season ago.

Ridley had a rough start to the season, fumbling a few times and not hitting holes with the same consistency as we saw from his last year. That even led to LeGarrette Blount stealing some of his carries early on. All is right in the New England offense again, though, as Ridley has returned to his role as the feature back and should see the lion’s share of the carries again against the Jets.

The Jets boast the league’s second-best run defense, holding opposing backs to just 75.7 yards per game, presenting a major test for the suddenly rejuvenated Ridley. Gronk’s presence should help take some of the focus off of the run game, but Ridley will need to establish some sort of consistency on the ground if Brady expects to get anything going down the field.

3. Keep Geno guessing – Geno Smith has been a lot better this season than people are giving him credit for. No, he hasn’t been Andrew Luck or Russell Wilson good — tough acts to follow — and he has turned the ball over quite a lot, but he’s been surprisingly solid on the whole.

Not much was expected of the rookie coming into this season, as he was forced into the starting role earlier than Rex Ryan and general manager John Idzik probably would have liked. He’s responded well to the pressure, though, completing just a shade under 60 percent of his passes, throwing for seven touchdowns and leading the Jets to a 3-3 record that no one outside of Florham Park, N.J. could have expected coming into this season.

While Geno has enjoyed some great games in big wins against the Bills (331 yards passing and three total touchdowns) and the Falcons (199 yards, three touchdowns and no turnovers), he has also endured some stinkers against the Titans (four turnovers), Steelers (two turnovers) and these very Patriots (three interceptions). The Patriots will need Chandler Jones, Rob Ninkovich and others to provide the pressure up front while disguising their looks on the back end and compensating for Talib’s and Mayo’s absences in coverage.

It won’t be easy, but more rookie mistakes from Geno would certainly help their cause.

Have a question for Luke Hughes? Send it to him via Twitter at @LukeFHughes or send it here.

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