Sunday, December 15, 2013

New England Patriots on Paper: Ridley needs to run hard - and quickly

Stevan Ridley's tough year can be saved by putting the past behind him and running hard
The psychology of football is an often overlooked aspect of the game, but absolutely impactful.

How many times have we seen it?  A running back fumbles the ball a couple of times and all of a sudden his focus becomes on increased ball security instead of aggressively running the ball? A receiver drops a ball or two and his hands turn to stone because he's concentrating too hard on catching the ball? Someone coming back from injury concentrating on protecting the injured body part?

Confidence wanes when something goes wrong, self-preservation takes over and technique goes out the window - and when technique goes, so does execution - and the results can be disastrous.  It doesn't even have to be something that has a significant impact on the game as a whole - something as seemingly insignificant as a linebacker biting on the play action can cause doubt to creep into their brain...

...which causes a split-second of hesitation - and a split-second can be an eternity in the light speed world of professional football - so without a doubt, New England Patriots' coach Bill Belichick includes intestinal fortitude and mental toughness in his criteria when choosing which players are brought in through the draft and free agency.

It's not perfect, Belichick's criterion, but it's better than just about everyone else's - and therefore, he sets the standard.

The old British axiom that "sometimes it's better to slap a hand than to hold it" is part of his working acumen - and it works well, particularly because he knows when to hold and hand - ie, keep feeding a player reps until they work through an issue - and also when to slap a hand, which means sitting someone on the bench to let them stew in their foul indiscretions and error repeating.

We've witnessed both in abundance this season from the immutable coach, and it is a major reason why his Patriots are currently perched on the top of the American Football Conference totem pole with the opportunity to make the road to the Super Bowl run right through Gillette Stadium...

...but also why his team has had to mount serious second half comebacks in half of their wins their season - their slow starts a matter more of a feeling out process and building up the players' confidence than anything to do with injuries or lack of effort - and more, Belichick having his plan and sticking with through thick and thin - putting his players in position to succeed by setting up the opposition through patience, then burying them with a strong counter-punch.

It has worked like a charm, with the rookie receivers, the offensive line and even Brady, who has melted down a couple of times in frustration - but the exception has been in the backfield, where the Patriots' lead back coming into the season has responded to being in the dog house by regressing into some sort of psychological funk...

...which he has to break out of if the Patriots are to realize their potential on offense and become all that Belichick has built them to be.

As aggressive and explosive a back as there is in the game today, Stevan Ridley has drawn the ire of Belichick on three separate occasions this season, benched in the opening contest of the season for putting the ball on the ground, benched again for doing the same thing in Cincinnati a few weeks later, then stripped of the ball in the Steelers game just before the bye.

Belichick has tried both slapping his hand and holding it - the strip in the Steelers game being acknowledged by Belichick as more of a great play by the Steelers than an issue on Ridley's part - but when he lost a fumble on the first drive of the game against Denver and it was returned for a touchdown, Belichick put him directly on the bench for the remainder of that game.

So egregious was the fumble against Denver that Belichick left him completely off of the game day roster against the Houston Texans the following week - but when he was activated in last Sunday's miraculous comeback against the Browns, he looked awkward and uncomfortable, and very timid in hitting the hole - not a good sign coming out of Belichick's doghouse.

So, pending Ridley's confidence issues, the running game is highlighted by Tampa Bay castoff LeGarrette Blount, who has found his niche in the backfield, his syrup-on-waffles running style leaking through the initial resistance and breaking off sweet jaunts through the second level, and complimented by Shane Vereen's hard running between the tackles - though Vereen's real contribution is in the passing game.

And that's it.  That said, this unit needs more going forward if they expect to get a fast start this Sunday to beat the Miami Dolphins, nevermind contending for a title.

Two of the three rookie receivers have already been ruled out of Sunday's game against the Dolphins, and with exceptional tight end Rob Gronkowski gone for the season, there is some big-time pressure on the remaining pass catching munchkins to create separation for themselves down the field - and much of that can be created by success in the running game, setting up the play action.

Wide Receiver Julian Edelman keeps making the plays that free agent acquisition Danny Amendola was supposed to be making - as it appears that Amendola's snaps are being managed to promote his overall health - while Vereen and rookie speedster Josh Boyce became intregal keys in the win over the Browns, and wiley veteran Austin Collie an under-the-radar possession threat.

The key, of course, is Vereen acting as a speedy and intrepid liason between the backfield and the pattern - but the success of the running game makes this entire thing click - the play action giving pause to the interior pass rush of the opposition, giving the pass protection that extra split second to square their shoulders and anchor themselves, in turn giving the receivers the same time frame to make their cuts and show their numbers to Brady.

Can the Patriots still win without Ridley?  The answer is a definitive "yes", but the third year LSU product has evolved into a popular man on the field, a known fumble risk that every defensive player will be focused on with the goal of stripping the ball out of his grasp - perhaps opening the game up for the pass while the would-be tacklers are drooling over the opportunity to cause a turnover...

...but even that won't work if Ridley doesn't break through the crust of his indecision and show the burst that made him a legitimate top 10 running back entering the season, before the psychological impact of putting the ball on the ground took control of his game.

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