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Stevan Ridley stood in the visitors’ locker room at EverBank Field in Jacksonville, Fla., Sunday afternoon, surrounded by media, and talked about the Patriots’ unexpectedly difficult road win over the Jaguars.
Ridley’s answer about the Patriots’ slow start came in the context of the team, but it also could have described his personal approach to a season that has seen the second-year running back top 1,000 rushing yards yet deal with a recurring ball-security problem.
“If you make it an issue, it can be an issue,” Ridley said. “For us, it’s just like the losses, the same with the wins: You have to put it behind you. Learn from your mistakes, go in there, and try to fix them.”
Ridley had put the ball on the turf three times in two games before Sunday’s 23-16 win. A fumble Dec. 10 against the Houston Texans was recovered by the Patriots. Another drop early in the game six days later against San Francisco was overturned when it was determined that Ridley had been down by contact before the ball popped loose. But later in the game, a Ridley fumble was grabbed by the 49ers, sending the 23-year-old to the sidelines, with Danny Woodhead coming in as his replacement.
It left many wondering — even though Ridley was sent back in late in the game against the 49ers — what his role would be going forward, starting with the Jaguars game.
The explosiveness he provides is difficult to duplicate. The fumbles, though, are getting to be tough to ignore.
Ball security was emphasized at practice following the loss to the 49ers — especially toward Ridley. Film of his struggles holding on to the football against the 49ers was shown late into the week.
“That’s what we had to focus on, because of the couple turnovers we had, starting with myself,” Ridley said. “We focused on that, and that’s what we have to do. When we carry the ball, we have to carry it back to our offense. We can’t turn it over, we can’t have fumbles.”
The focus paid off, at least in the win over the Jaguars. There were no fumbles by the Patriots, although they did throw two interceptions. Ridley had a team-high 18 carries, rushing for 88 yards.
Ridley got the call on the Patriots’ first six rushing plays, proof that even though confidence in him might have diminished among some outside the locker room, it was still there among his teammates and coaches.
“It was good to be out there on the field,” Ridley said. “However they call my number and put me out there, I’m happy to be out there. To see Coach [Bill Belichick] have [confidence] in me, that was his call.
“I just have to go out there and be the player that I am, so I’m thankful for every opportunity that I get each day.”
With 1,189 rushing yards, four 100-yard games, and 10 touchdowns, Ridley has given the Patriots plenty of good football this season.
“Stevan has carried the ball a lot of times for us this year and done a lot of good things for us and really helped our offense move the football and score points,” said offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels.
“When you look at issues, whether it be ball security or pass protection or the ability to run the ball outside or whatever the issue may be, there is always a reason. Our goal is to try to give the player enough resources and enough instruction that he might be able to effectively improve that situation, that issue, if it exists.”
The Patriots are closing in on the second season — the more important one. After Sunday’s regular-season finale against the Miami Dolphins at Gillette Stadium, the playoffs begin. No matter the opponent, or whether the Patriots play on wild-card weekend or get a first-round bye, Ridley is expected to be what he has been all season: the featured back.
Holding on to the football will again be paramount. Late fumbles last season kept Ridley inactive for the AFC Championship game and on the sidelines during the Super Bowl.
“We need to focus on the smaller things that are going to help us win, and that’s keeping the ball in our possession,” Ridley said. “You can’t sulk on the bad or sit on the good. You’ve got to keep moving.”