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Patriots Take 2: Stevan Ridley needs to remain the lead running back

Posted by Erik Frenz  October 16, 2013 08:00 AM

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You can put your nailclippers away. You'll be biting your nails for the rest of the season.

The Patriots ensured that with yet another game that came down to the wire, the fourth game that has come down to the final possession. Tom Brady was far from perfect, but he delivered another signature moment in his storied career with his last-gasp touchdown toss to rookie wide receiver Kenbrell Thompkins, capping off his second fourth-quarter comeback of the season.

Brady covers up a lot of problems, but the Patriots solved one of their biggest offensive problems when they finally got things going in the red zone and in the running game -- in one fell swoop.

Here's a look at all that and a little more in this week's film review.



Stevan Ridley deserves to be the workhorse running back

Ridley wasn't completely phased out of the offense after fumbling in Week 1 against the Buffalo Bills, but his workload was notably lighter than last year. In 2012, he had just five games with 16 carries or fewer, and he's already at four in 2013.

The Patriots were 6-of-17 in the red zone headed into the game, and went 3-of-5 on the day, thanks to Ridley's first two touchdowns of the season, in the first game of the year where he's had more than 16 carries.

Coincidence? You tell me, but he ran hard on Sunday and clearly had something to prove.

He dragged defenders, bounced off them, and otherwise found ways to keep his legs moving. Ridley finished with 60 yards after contact, breaking four tackles in the process and showed both the explosive burst and the toughness that has made him the Patriots best option in the backfield two years running.

He had two stiff-arms on one 19-yard run off right tackle, and was able to keep the ball safely tucked away in the process. That's the kind of hard-nosed, decisive running that helped Ridley rush for 1,263 yards and 12 touchdowns in 2012.

His four-yard touchdown run in the second quarter was a prime example. Ridley took the handoff off the left side, with fullback James Develin and tight end Michael Hoomanawanui blocking the defenders to the inside so Ridley could bounce to the outside.

When he got there, however, safety Kenny Vaccaro and linebacker Kevin Reddick were both waiting for him. Ridley turned straight upfield, lowered his shoulder and quickly secured the ball using proper high-and-tight technique, falling forward for the touchdown through the two defenders.

On the day, Ridley finished with 10 carries for 45 yards on runs outside the tackles and 10 carries for 51 yards on runs between the tackles.

The Saints have given up the 11th-most rushing yards despite the fourth-fewest rush attempts against them. Their average of 5.1 YPA allowed is the third-highest in the NFL. Maybe that was the nudge Ridley needed to get things going after a slow start to the season.

With the cold weather right around the corner, Ridley couldn't have picked a better time to get moving in the right direction.



Shutting down Jimmy Graham

Tight ends have run rampant through the Patriots secondary in recent years, and few have been as dominant this season as Saints tight end Jimmy Graham. Quarterback Drew Brees threw six passes in Graham's direction, had one intercepted, one broken up and completed none of them.

The Patriots are one of few teams in the NFL that has a cornerback with the physicality and frame to match up with Graham, and Aqib Talib was up to that challenge. Talib was in coverage on Graham for 19 of his snaps on Sunday, and was targeted three times while in coverage on Graham.

Talib went toe-to-toe with the physical Graham, and broke up the pass on this play in the first quarter.

graham PBU 1.png

The Saints have gotten used to having Graham (circled in black) run slant routes against smaller cornerbacks on the outside. Graham almost always wins the physical matchup on those routes. He wasn't able to use his basketball skills to box Talib out like he is able to do against so many other cornerbacks.

graham PBU 2.png

Talib didn't get his hand on the ball, as this screen grab might suggest, but his presence and hand technique were enough to cause some disruption for Graham trying to catch the pass.

While his role in locking down Graham was somewhat of a surprise, his standout performance in doing so was not a shock. On the season, he has allowed 13 completions on 33 throws into his coverage, and has allowed just one touchdown while intercepting four passes and logging five pass breakups.

He performed admirably, but he wasn't the only that had that responsibility. He left the game with a hip injury in the third quarter, and at that point, he was covered by cornerback Kyle Arrington.

GRAHAM PBU 3.png

Arrington found himself in coverage on Graham long before Talib's hip injury sidelined him for the rest of the game. Graham leaked out of the backfield after initially lining up next to Drew Brees in the shotgun. He motioned to the slot, thus making Arrington accountable for him as a receiver.

To Arrington's credit, he stayed with Graham stride-for-stride, but safety Devin McCourty came over to help out in coverage.

jimm graham double covered by arrington and mccourty.png

Graham would ordinarily be able to climb over a defender, but Arrington was able to get inside position on the pass, and would have intercepted it were it not for Graham turning into a defensive back for a moment.

The screen grab above encapsulates an overriding theme on the day, the season, and the Patriots defense over the years: regardless of how it gets done, the Patriots are one of the league's best teams at game-planning an opponent's best player out of a game.



Anatomy of a touchdown

The final touchdown will live on in infamy like unicorns and show ponies, but it almost didn't happen.

thompkins TD 1.png

The Patriots went with the 11 personnel grouping (1RB-1TE-3WR) and the Saints matched with their dime defensive package. Former NFL safety and Bleacher Report's Matt Bowen says the defensive call is "Red" 2, which is "a defense played in the red zone to create a 'fence' across the goal line," while the Patriots ran four vertical routes -- two on either side.

thompkins TD 2.png

The coverage from the Saints panned out perfectly, with defenders across the goal line, in position to defend a pass thrown in any part of the end zone.

The Saints had the right defensive call to stop the Patriots, but just didn't execute.

hi-res-7751664_crop_exact.jpg

Just look at how close Jabari Greer's fingertips were to the ball on this play. If he had timed his jump right, this would have been incomplete, and the Patriots would have had to try again.

Here's a look at the whole thing at full speed.



Nate Solder rebounds after tough outing vs. Bengals

Solder was responsible for three hurries and two sacks of Tom Brady against the Bengals, but he didn't allow a single pressure of Brady against the Saints.

And to think, it was all nearly undone by what could have been holding on the touchdown to Thompkins.

hold.png

Envision yourself in the referee's shoes. It looks, here, like Logan Mankins and Sedrick Ellis are engaged in a battle directly in front of his vantage point for Solder blocking Junior Gallette.

Solder certainly hooked Ellis around the neck a little bit, but usually, those holds will only be called when they're especially egregious. If Gallette had fallen to the turf, he probably would have gotten the call.



An interesting defensive wrinkle

The Patriots mixed things up quite a bit defensively.

Here are two snapshots of pre-snap alignments on back-to-back plays in the first quarter.

odd alignment 1.png

This is a 4-2-5 nickel package, but they lined up in a unique way. Cornerback Aqib Talib was lined up deep as a safety, and safeties Steve Gregory and Devin McCourty were lined up close to the line of scrimmage. Cornerback Kyle Arrington was also lined up deep on the outside.

odd alignment 2.png

On the next play, the Patriots came out with two down linemen, five linebackers in a two-point stance as linebackers (including Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich on the edges) and four defensive backs.

They weren't even close to done yet.

odd alignment 3.png

In the fourth quarter, the Patriots came out in an alignment you'll hardly ever see. There were just two defensive backs -- a cornerback and a safety -- along with three defensive linement and six linebackers (Jones and Ninkovich on the edges). Brandon Spikes (LB at the bottom of the screen) followed the fullback as he motioned out wide after starting out lined up in the I-formation.

Between running backs Pierre Thomas and Darren Sproles, in addition to Graham, it's no surprise the Patriots wanted to beef up their coverage over the middle.




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About the author

Erik Frenz delivers analysis of the biggest news with the Patriots, including insight into the AFC East and New England's biggest rivals from a Patriots perspective. Erik is an interactive writer who engages his audience in his posts’ comments sections and on Twitter. Readers are encouraged to share their thoughts and ask questions. More »

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