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November 02. 2013 8:25PM

Dave D'Onofrio's Patriots Notebook: Ridley may see heavy workload against Steelers

Stevan Ridley insisted after last week's win over the Dolphins that his relegation to the sidelines for the entire first quarter had nothing to do with discipline or punishment or anything along those lines. He said it was simply the way the game went. It was just the way the coaches decided to use their running backs.

The way the coaches have decided to use Ridley throughout this season has generally been something of a surprise. He was benched in the opener after fumbling, and missed a game with a knee injury, though coming off a 1,263-yard season he's on pace to carry the ball 106 fewer times than he did in 2012 - despite averaging practically the same productivity per attempt. Particularly with versatile Shane Vereen having missed so much time, most expected Ridley would play a more prominent role.

And today, with the Steelers headed to Gillette Stadium, they might finally prove to be right.

Ridley has run the ball well when given the opportunity of late, scoring four times over his previous three games, while averaging a spiffy 5 yards per carry over that span, and now Pittsburgh arrives with a defense that has proven itself vastly better against the pass than the run.

The Steelers' pass defense hasn't been the problem en route to a 2-5 record, ranking second in the NFL by allowing just 181 yards per game through the air. However, a franchise that has long prided itself on its toughness and physicality has been pushed around in the running game, ranking 27th in terms of yards allowed (121.9 per game), and yielding a robust average of 4.0 yards per carry.
Some of that is a product of playing from behind so much, but only once have the Steelers been blown out, so it's not as though most of those runs are coming in noncompetitive situations. And at a time when there are questions about whether New England quarterback Tom Brady is dealing with an injury to his throwing hand, the Patriots should take advantage of that vulnerability and make every effort to exploit it.
"That's what we try to do every week; be balanced on our attack," Ridley said. "And every week that we go out there and we're balanced, I think that we play our best football."

To his point, the Patriots have been held to less than 100 rushing yards three times this season; they've lost two of those, and scored 13 points in winning the other. Comparatively, the offense passed for a net total of 100 yards last week, and scored 27 points while winning by double digits for just the second time this season.

In that game, the holes weren't there early, but eventually the Patriots' offensive line established itself physically, and the holes started opening.

"Our offensive line started leaning on them, and they opened up the creases," Ridley said. "If they're not coming early, they'll get there late. But I know they'll always figure it out because they're a group that's been together and they know how to open up the holes for us."

And when those holes appear, the Patriot best equipped to take full advantage of them is Ridley. LeGarrette Blount is big and strong. Brandon Bolden is solid, and can catch. But Ridley is a blend of speed and power that's capable of both grinding out hard yards or bursting through the line and going for 20.

When he is running effectively, he tends to have a positive impact on the game. Over the past season-and-a-half, he's run effectively almost every time he's been given the chance. And, against the Steelers, the Pats would be wise to make today another of those opportunities.
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OVERRATED: Emmanuel Sanders. The Patriots signed the receiver to an offer sheet last offseason that would've cost them a third-round draft pick if the Steelers hadn't matched it - but the Steelers did match the offer, at least in part because of a belief Sanders would help them sustain the loss of Mike Wallace to Miami. He hasn't. Of the 57 passes Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger has thrown his way, Sanders has caught only 31 for 396 yards. In terms of yards per target, that's barely better than the Patriots' rookies.
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UNDERRATED: Jerricho Cotchery. The 10-year veteran has overall had an average career, but he has more catches (49), yards (690) and touchdowns (five) against the Patriots than he does against any other team. In 14 games he has five efforts of at least five catches, and five of at least 70 yards. And this season he's averaged 14.9 yards per catch while converting first downs on 18 of his 22 grabs. Antonio Brown is Pittsburgh's most dangerous receiver, but Cotchery has proven he can hurt New England, too.
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KEEP AN EYE ON ...: Turnovers. The Steelers have nine more giveaways than takeaways through seven games, which is third-worst in the AFC. Part of the problem is a defense that didn't create a turnover until Week 6, but the an offense has given away 14 possessions, and its ball security has been a telling indicator of its chances to win: Pittsburgh has committed at least two turnovers in all five of its losses, but had only one total over the course of its two wins.
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KEY MATCHUP: Chris Jones, Joe Vellano and Isaac Sopoaga vs. the Steelers' interior line. Roethlisberger has been sacked 26 times in seven games, and Pittsburgh ranks 29th league-wide in yards per rushing attempt. The Steelers' offensive line is not good, and already without center Maurkice Pouncey for the season, they'll be missing right guard David DeCastro today. Those are their two best linemen, and so it should present an opportunity for the Patriots to get pressure on the quarterback by coming up the gut, while also helping a New England run defense that ranks as the second-worst in football.
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STAT OF THE WEEK: Brady's 55.7 percent completion rate is tied with Eli Manning for 29th in the NFL. Patriots receivers have a higher drop rate (7.9 percent) than any group in the league. If the Pats merely dropped passes at the average rate, Brady's completion percentage would be at 59 percent - and perhaps perceived as much less an issue.

Dave D'Onofrio covers the Patriots for the New Hampshire Union Leader and Sunday News. His e-mail address is ddonof13@gmail.com.


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