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September 27. 2013 12:15AM

Dave D'Onofrio's Patriots Notebook: Sorry, fantasy players, Pats' backfield is deep

When the Patriots opened last Sunday's game against the Buccaneers with a screen pass to Brandon Bolden, the roar you heard was the Gillette Stadium crowd reacting as the back grabbed the toss and scooted to a 12-yard gain.

The groan you heard was from fantasy football owners who spent an early pick on Stevan Ridley.

And there were quite a few of those. In Yahoo Sports leagues, Ridley was drafted 23rd on average. In ESPN leagues, his draft average was 24th. At NFL.com it was 27th.

It's hard to fault those drafters, either. Ridley ran for 1,263 yards last season, when only five players scored more than his 12 touchdowns.

But through the first three weeks of this season there has been plenty of evidence to suggest that Ridley won't replicate those numbers this year.

There was his benching after a Week 1 fumble at Buffalo. There was Shane Vereen seizing the opportunity that created by gaining 159 yards from scrimmage in that contest, despite suffering a broken wrist that subsequently landed him on the injured reserve list until the second half of the season. There was Bolden's immediate ascension from injured and inactive to an important part of the game plan against Tampa. Then there was the decision to let LeGarrette Blount handle the late-game load as the Pats tried to drain the clock and put the Bucs away.

All told, it's offered a strong indication that Ridley's role won't be equivalent to that of a feature back this season. He likely won't be the fantasy star that was forecast.

But so far the results suggest that in real-world football the Patriots can still be very productive at that position, particularly if it is managed properly.

"I think they've got some guys that have great skill sets at the running back position," said Atlanta Coach Mike Smith, whose Falcons welcome the Patriots on Sunday night. "They've done a good job of keeping those guys fresh and putting guys in roles that they can be successful in."

Disbelieving that the Patriots' young receivers could beat them, the Jets loaded up the box to stop the run in Week 2, and were successful in doing so. Nevertheless, New England had racked up the 12th-most rushing yards in football going into Thursday night's game, because its backs had rushed for 158 and 156 in its other two tilts.

What's particularly intriguing and promising about the group, though, is the way each of its members can be used in any number of circumstances. Smith described Leon Washington as a change-of-pace type, and said he sees the same skill set and running style among the rest of New England's backs.

The three who played against Tampa are hardly clones of each other, as Bill Belichick pointed out, but they have enough similarities to prevent opposing defenses from predicting whether the Pats will run or pass based specifically on personnel, and enough versatility that any of them could be called upon in any situation.

"All our backs practice and take a lot of reps, both in the running game, the passing game, some of the situational football portions that we practice — third down, red zone, those kind of things," said offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels. "They all get an opportunity to go in there and rep, and they're all ready to play. I think anybody that's earned the right to be out there with their performance and what they've done in practice and throughout the course of the season, we usually put them out there and give them an opportunity to make an impact on Sunday."

McDaniels noted that each of the three backs played between 23 and 26 snaps last Sunday, applauded them for being "productive in their own ways," and said he anticipates that sort of cycling to continue throughout the year.

That's bad news if Ridley's on your fantasy team. But it's fine by the players themselves.

"Honestly, we don't even care about that, and I can speak for (Blount and Ridley) about this," Bolden said. "We don't care about that. They call our name, they call our name. If they don't, they don't. We're going to encourage that guy who does go in and makes the best effort he can, and I think (last Sunday) you got the best from all three."

Ridley's best play against Tampa was a pretty, PlayStation-esque spin move that picked up nine yards and a first down. Blount's best work was done in the fourth quarter, when he carried the ball — along with his 245 pounds — 10 times.

Bolden made his biggest impact in the passing game — that opening screen catch was the first of his five receptions for 49 yards — and the Falcons' strengths and weaknesses may dictate that this week he makes his mark as a receiver again.

Atlanta has allowed the fifth-fewest rushing yards in football despite playing three games that were decided by a single score, so it has proven strong against the run to this point. That doesn't mean, however, that they've been strong against running backs.

In their opener at New Orleans, Saints backs Darren Sproles and Pierre Thomas combined to make 10 catches for 104 yards. The next week, Rams runners Daryl Richardson and Isaiah Pead totaled seven grabs for 63 yards.

The Falcons improved last week, limiting Dolphins backs to two catches, but if the Patriots can effectively involve a guy out of the backfield in the passing game, that may be the best way to loosen up a suspect secondary for Tom Brady and his work-in-progress receiving corps — whether that guy is Bolden again, or Ridley, or Blount, or maybe even Washington.

"All those players are good players; they're productive players," Belichick said. "Certainly having a good, fresh guy in there that we're confident in — that can be productive for us is a good situation. I think no matter which guy is in there, we have a lot of confidence. They all can be productive."

And — sorry, Ridley drafters — it's likely they all will have their chances to be so.

Dave D'Onofrio covers the Patriots for the New Hampshire Union Leader and Sunday News. Email him at ddonof13@gmail.com.


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