Ridley finished seventh in the NFL with 1,263 rushing yards, third in first downs (82), and tied for third with 12 touchdowns. Ridley’s five total fumbles (three lost) are a concern, but backs usually improve in that department over time. If Ridley is going to become a three-down back, he’s also going to have to work on his pass catching. He had two drops on just eight catchable passes. Vereen was much improved over the course of the season, and it’s a shame Bolden wasn’t seen after his PED suspension because he definitely impressed as an early-down complement to Ridley.
Receivers (3.0 out of 5)
Despite replacing Chad Ochocinco with Brandon Lloyd, this group faltered this season and likely will be looked at closely by the coaches. Drops were certainly an issue, as the team went from 35 to 42, with Wes Welker’s 13 leading the way — but it was the same number he had in 2011. Of course, Welker seems to have bad timing. Probably more alarming were the 21 drops combined among Hernandez (doubled 2011 total to 10), Lloyd (6), and Gronkowski (5). They should be better than that. The Patriots also dipped from leading the league in explosive passes (72) to tied for seventh (57). That can almost directly be attributed to coming up short with yards after the catch. The Patriots went from 6.7 yards after the catch last season — the best under Bill Belichick — to 5.9, their worst mark since 2009.
Injuries did not help. Hernandez and Gronkowski combined to basically play a full season between them, and the promising Julian Edelman played just nine games. The Patriots thought they had a good backup tight end in Visanthe Shiancoe (they even used their one designated-to-return spot on injured reserve for him), but he suited up in five games before being released with zero catches. The tight ends were also worse run blocking without a healthy Gronkowski. In 2011, they allowed 16 stuffed runs (runs of 1 yard or less outside of short yardage). This year it was 30.5 with Michael Hoomanawanui (two sacks allowed) leading the way with 11.
Offensive line (3.5 out of 5)
An area of concern heading into the season with the retirement of left tackle Matt Light and the failure to report of right guard Brian Waters, Dante Scarnecchia’s crew more than held its own in a restocking year that showed great promise. It wasn’t a total triumph, but it was pretty good. The offensive line’s responsibility for the 28 sacks (35 in 2011) was 20.5, which was an improvement from 23.5 in 2011. This year’s line allowed five fewer stuffed runs. In every other category, the 2011 group was superior, even playing one more game: hurries (81.5 to 95), knockdowns (39.5 to 52.5), and total quarterback pressures (144.5 to 168).
All eyes were on left tackle Nate Solder, and while he’s a better run blocker than Light, Solder (4.5 sacks, 28.5 hurries, 12.5 knockdowns, 45.5 total pressures) will have to grow into Light’s shoes. As for replacing Waters, (2.5 sacks, 6 hurries, 4 knockdowns for 12.5 total pressures in 2011), Dan Connolly allowed 2.5 sacks, 8.5 hurries, and 9.5 knockdowns for 20.5 total pressures — but in 300 fewer snaps. Left guard Logan Mankins was much better this season after playing with an ACL injury all of last season. He allowed just half a sack, 18 total pressures, and 9 stuffed runs. In 2011, he allowed 3.5 sacks, 24 total pressures, and 16 stuffed runs. Center Ryan Wendell (4 sacks, 13.5 hurries, 5.5 knockdowns, 23 total pressures, 11 run stuffs) improved and was playing excellent at the end of the season. Right tackle Sebastian Vollmer led the team with 6.5 sacks allowed, and his 37 total pressures were second. In his last full season in 2010, Vollmer allowed 1 sack and 17 pressures.
Defensive line (3.6 out of 5)
Another standout, fundamentally sound season for the front four as they welcomed position coach Patrick Graham with Pepper Johnson moving to linebackers. The entire front seven was a little bit better against the run (117 stuffed runs in one fewer game than 2011’s 109), but the plan to upgrade the pass rush again failed to come to fruition. The 214 total quarterback pressures were 25 fewer than 2011, and the sack total declined from 51 to 40.
That mostly had to do with the ankle injury to rookie right end Chandler Jones, who accounted for 38 percent of the Patriots’ pressures through Week 10 but only 8 percent from that point on. The Patriots had no viable alternatives behind Jones. Rob Ninkovich continued to be consistent, but without Jones playing a full season, the Patriots needed four players (Jones, Justin Francis, Jermaine Cunningham, and Trevor Scott — 15.5 sacks, 78.5 total pressures) to replace Andre Carter and Mark Anderson (22.5 sacks, 78 total pressures in 2011). Continued...