Stevan Ridley in the end zone. Again. (Photo by Jim Rogash/Getty Images)
Two preseason games down, two great outings by 3rd round pick Stevan Ridley. Move over, Adrian Peterson, there's a new kid in town.
Well, not really. Ridley is only in AP's league in the "they both play in the NFL" sense. But still, these first two exhibition games have seen Ridley take full advantage of the carries he's been given and his impressive skill set has been on display for both the coaches and the fans. He was the lone bright spot in Thursday night's 2nd half fiasco, and much like a fat man getting behind the wheel of a Honda Civic, he is slowly but surely wedging himself into place in the Patriots' backfield.
However, as solid as Ridley has been as of late, he hasn't been flawless. In fact, a number of areas have stood out over the last month of practices and games that warrant attention. So, before I jump to my conclusion, I want to first break down what I think are his biggest strengths and biggest weaknesses thus far. The good news is that almost all of his shortcomings are very correctable, and with the right mentoring he has the potential to be one of the better all-around backs on this team. Below are the positives and negatives that have been prevalent in Ridley's play thus far.
Positive First Step. One of the things that drove Patriots Nation nuts with Laurence Maroney was his maddening 3-step shuffle at the line of scrimmage before he committed to the run (of course, by "committed to the run", I mean a few lateral steps followed by a dive for no gain). I'm happy to report that Ridley does not seem to share Maroney's desire to appear on Dancing with the Stars. Ridley takes the ball and attacks the hole with authority (heh), generating a great first step and establishing his lane well. How a runner approaches gaps in the line is a crucial component to being an effective back, and Ridley is decisive and strong-minded from the moment he receives the handoff. Which is a nice segue into...
Solid Gap Vision. "Seeing the field" is a term that gets thrown around a lot in the National Football League. It means different things for different positions, obviously; for a running back, the ability to see the field connotes an understanding of where the bulk of the defensive pressure is coming from, recognizing the blocking assignments of the offensive linemen, and taking advantage of the gaps created by the various offensive schemes. While reliable gap vision can be improved with coaching, a lot of it is simply instinctive, and Ridley has demonstrated great instincts at seeing holes open up and getting through them. He is still working on his patience - there were a couple of plays on Thursday where he didn't wait long enough for the hole to develop and got stuffed as a result - but overall Ridley seems to understand where his primary openings are and charges at the gap like a suburban teenager armed with her daddy's credit card.
Explosive 2nd Gear. Ridley isn't an exceptionally fast runner and can be chased down by speedier defensive players, but I was impressed with his ability to explode into space and turn on the burners he does have at his disposal. Ridley's legs were on full display during the first drive following Mallett's interception, and while that drive may have ended in a Ridley fumble, I think it was his best overall drive of the game and showed his ability to change speeds at the right time. There is a marked difference between Ridley's 1st and 2nd gear, and although his transition between them isn't as smooth as I'd like it to be (more on that in the cons section), he is able to turn it on once he gets into open space and can clip away sizable chunks of yards at a time.
I feel like there is a landscaping joke to be made somewhere in the last sentence, but since I live in New York City and don't have a yard, I just can't find it. Oh well.
Dependable Hands. The check-down receiver is a scrambling QB's best friend, and the 2nd offense was scrambling quite a bit on Thursday. Ridley was able to haul in 3 passes for 27 yards, including a nice little 13 yard gain that resulted in a 1st down. What makes Ridley's receiving contributions that much more impressive is his relative lack of experience to this point as a receiver, as he is not known as a receiving back and didn't catch a great deal of passes at Cal. I was also impressed with Ridley's knowledge of where the first down marker was and the efforts he made to try and secure a new set of downs each time he caught the ball. All too often younger players will be thinking about running with the ball before they secure the actual reception, and it is refreshing to see a young back that correctly prioritizes the proper steps to effective pass catching.
OK, enough with the glowing admiration. Time to rip Ridley a new one.
Weak Blitz Pickups. Weak may be too strong a word to use here, as Ridley has been adequate at picking up blitzes thus far (including a nice stop of charging former Patriot Tyrone McKenzie on the Patriots' 3rd quarter FG drive). But while he hasn't been bad, he hasn't been great, either. While you have to attribute some of it to Ryan Mallett's inability to read the coverages on a few plays, there were definitely instances where Mallett was rushed because Ridley missed his assignment. Furthermore, Ridley tends to carry his bodyweight a little high on his blocks, which leaves him in prime position to get blown up like the bathrooms at Arby's by a smart linebacker coming in low at full speed. As game tape of Ridley piles up, blitzing LBs will be able to exploit his upright blocking style. If only the Patriots had a running back on the roster that is considered one of the best blocking RBs in the game...
I can't say it enough: having Obi-Wan Faulk around is going to prove invaluable for these young running backs.
Leads With His Face. The career of the NFL running back is very much like the career of a stripper: short and spectacular, but destined for a premature and messy end if you don't take care of yourself. While it's always nice to see a runner smash into a defender trying to pick up that extra yard or two, sometimes it's a smarter play to just step out of bounds or fall into the hit to avoid getting your bell rung. A number of Ridley's sideline runs these past two games ended with him lowering his shoulder and taking an unnecessary hit before stepping out of bounds. Sure it's fun to watch, but it's not the recipe for durability in this league. I'm going to give him the benefit of the doubt for now and chalk it up to Ridley just trying to prove his durability and toughness to the coaching staff. Plus, he's a rookie with plenty of time to learn the nuances of the position. However, I'd like to see Ridley get a little smarter with his body so he can maintain the same intensity for the entire season.
Lacks Smoothness with Cuts. One of Danny Woodhead's biggest strengths, besides the fact that defenses just can't see the guy behind the mass of O Line bodies, is his ability to cut with speed and conviction. Ridley, not so much: he tends to slow back down to 1st gear before making his cuts upfield. Granted, Ridley is more of a slasher than a cut-and-run type back, but there were a few plays where he got brought down as he slowed his pace looking to make a cut, and I'd like to see that improve. Ridley doesn't have the size to be the bruiser that just runs people over, so he's going to have to work on his ability to cut with fluidity and confidence. Working with Woodhead and Faulk, two great cutters, should help him immensely as the season goes on.
Lame Nickname Potential. This one may be just me. I know I'm not the most creative guy in the world, especially when it comes to bestowing nicknames on people. It's a gift I just don't have, and I've accepted it. However, for the life of me I just can't see someone with a name like Stevan Ridley ever getting a cool nickname. When you look at some of the greatest nicknames this sport has ever seen - Sweetness, Night Train, The Fridge, All Day, Prime Time - their actual names just fit in perfectly with their imparted moniker. All I can think of when I hear Stevan Ridley's name is "Heavin' Stevan" and "Ridley's Believe it or Not." Both of those names are about as cool as I was in Junior High School when I still thought sweatpants and a sweater was a perfectly acceptable outfit (for the record, I still love sweatpants. I just know now that there are only certain places where it's OK to wear them. Like when I'm relaxing at home, or out at a strip club). Let's hope someone more original than I gets to him first and gives him a really cool nickname.
So, with that, the question still remains: is Stevan Ridley a legit NFL-caliber running back? Have we seen enough over the course of these two preseason games and this past month of practices to feel confident in saying he'll be a productive member of this team? Is Stevan Ridley going to be a stud in the National Football League?
Of course he is! After all, this is the Jump to Conclusions Mat, isn't it? If we can't make insane assumptions now, when can we? I have no problem giving Ridley my official Shane Stamp of Approval (note to self: purchase large wooden Shane Stamp of Approval). He's only going to get better as the season goes on, and being part of such a full stable of running backs means he won't have to take on that workhorse role and start to wear out down the stretch. I'm very excited to see what he brings to the table when Tom Brady is under center and New England's very dangerous 1st String tight ends and receivers are on the field, giving opposing defenses plenty to worry about.
I honestly can't remember the last time I had this much fun watching meaningless football games. It seems like every week a new potential Patriots star is born (paging Will Yeatman), and all the excitement and bravado of the regular season is still ahead of us. In fact, this may be the first preseason ever where I get really excited to watch every single play.
Well, every single play except for the kickoff, that is. I really hate this new rule.