Patriots

Ridley looks to protect ball as role increases on Patriots

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Ridley looks to protect ball as role increases on Patriots

FOXBORO -- Stevan Ridley fumbled in Week 17 against the Bills. He did it in his next game too, an AFC Divisional playoff against the Broncos.

Take a seat, rookie.

Ridley never saw action again after fumbling that short Brady pass in the red zone in a third-quarter drive that saw the Patriots looking to go up 49-7 on the Broncos.

Nobody was surprised -- especially not Ridley himself.

"The ball can't be on the ground man, that's no secret," Ridley said Wednesday after Patriots-Saints practice concluded. "Fumbles will have you on the bench and nobody had to tell me that. That's kind of been a rule that I've had since I was young, that's nothing new to me. But this year we're going to try to go and do the best that I can. I have to try to keep the ball high and tight and I know that if I can keep the ball in my hands then I'll be on the field, so I have my work cut out for me."

The work started immediately after the Super Bowl -- a game that Ridley watched in uniform from the sidelines. Not being able to go out there and help his team was added fuel for Ridley's offseason workouts.

"Of course, man, of course," he said of using it as motivation. "Nobody likes to ride the pine, but you know you have to pay your dues and when you make a mistake you have to man up to it and just make sure you don't make the same mistakes."

The Patriots had BenJarvus Green-Ellis (who hasn't fumbled once in college or the NFL -- and allegedly not in high school either) last season, so benching Ridley wasn't a big deal. But this year? They don't have that luxury. Ridley looks to to be the favorite to win the Patriots No. 1 running back spot, and with that comes a lot more responsibility for the second-year back.

"This year you're kind of forced to grow up fast," he said. "You have to take the role that they give you, you have to perfect that and try to be really mistake-free. So for me, coming into this year it's just having a focus. A little bit more focus. Toning a few things down, putting in a little bit of extra time, taking care of your body. Coming out here on the field and being sound with what exactly you have to do with your assignments and things of that nature. So that's really how I'm going to try to best prepare myself for the upcoming season."

Ridley and Brady connected on a few passes under coverage on Wednesday, but just being out on the field with the first team for the majority of the day is the biggest difference from Year 1 to Year 2 for Ridley. You can bank on last year's 87 carries to increase.

"It's more reps man. I'm a little more comfortable out there," he said. "Am I perfect? Not by any means. I still have a lot of work to do. I'm just looking at how over time my carries and things have increased, my reps on the field have increased, but it's still a long way to go and there's still a long way to go."

Having played at LSU, the preseason game against the hometown Saints on Thursday night will surely add a little more meaning to an already meaningful game.

"Very excited about it, it's a big stage," Ridley said. "It's going to be very exciting to go out there and play against the Saints, especially coming from Louisiana, and we're up here working hard just like they are. It's the first game tomorrow, family is coming in. It's going to be a big-time atmosphere and I'm looking forward to it a lot."

But he isn't assuming anything, knowing there's still plenty of time left in camp.

"For me, nothing is written in stone," he said. "Nobody is the starter just yet. I'm just going out there and trying to make the most of the opportunities the coaches give me."

Hold on to that ball, kid, and you'll get plenty of them.

Tom Brady on pace for huge numbers, so why is he down on his play of late?

Tom Brady on pace for huge numbers, so why is he down on his play of late?

FOXBORO -- Tom Brady is on pace for 5,224 yards passing in 2017, just a shade under his total from his career-high in 2011. He's on track to have 34 touchdowns and just five picks. Barring a continued run of ridiculous efficiency from Kansas City's Alex Smith, those numbers would be MVP-caliber in all likelihood.

But Brady's not thrilled with the way he's played of late. What gives? 

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In his past two games, he hasn't thrown the football as consistently as he would have liked. After starting the season with a 10-to-0 touchdown-to-interception ratio, he's 3-to-2 in the last couple of weeks. His accuracy has been at times pinpoint (as it was on his 42-yard completion to Brandin Cooks to help set up a Rob Gronkowski score against the Jets), but it has also been uncharacteristically erratic.

He was picked deep down the middle of the field by Buster Skrine last week, but the more concerning throw may have been the quick out-route to Gronkowski that Skrine dropped for what should have been an easy interception. Brady missed Phillip Dorsett on what looked like it could have been a long touchdown with Dorsett running free behind the defense. He threw behind Chris Hogan twice in the game, one of which opened up Hogan to a rib-shot that landed him on the injury report this week.

Against the Jets, Brady was not sacked and he was hit only four times -- a light day for him compared to other weeks this season when he's been battered. Yet he still completed just under 53 percent of his passes for 257 yards and a season-low 6.76 yards per attempt. 

"Well, I've got to hit the open . . . If the throws are there I've got to be able to make them," he said on Friday. "It's disappointing when I don't. To me, it just comes back to technique and fundamentals and making sure everything is working and that's the consistent daily thing that you're working on. I'm always working on my accuracy.

"I wish I hit them all. I'm capable of hitting them all and I need to be able to do that. I said last week that some of these games wouldn't be as close if I was playing better in the red area. I think some of those missed opportunities in the pass game with me hitting guys would really help our team. Hopefully, I can do a better job for this team."

Brady is no longer listed on the Patriots injury report, but he dealt with a left shoulder injury against both the Bucs and the Jets, and it's worth wondering if that somehow impacted how his passes traveled in those games. Balance is key in Brady's world, and even though he can make flat-footed throws look easy, perhaps an injury to his front side limited his ability to place the ball where he wanted. 

Keeping Brady upright could go a long way in helping the 40-year-old regain his form from Weeks 2-4 when he didn't dip below a 104 quarterback rating. Bill Belichick said earlier this week that part of the reason the Jets pass-rush wasn't quite as effective as others they'd faced this year was his team's ability to run the ball. Productive rushing attempts on first and second down mean manageable third downs, which mean shorter pass attempts. Those of course, in theory, lead to less time standing in the pocket and a healthier quarterback.

"It's great," Brady said of his team's recent surge running the football. "I mean, to be able to run the ball consistently in the NFL is important for every offense. It does take a lot of . . . I wouldn't say pressure, it's just production. If 400 yards of offense is what you're looking for and you can get 150 from your running game, the 250 has got to come in the passing game. If you're getting 50 yards in the rushing game then it means you've got to throw for more.

"I don't think it's pressure it's just overall you're going to get production in different areas and the backs are a big part of our offense and handing the ball off to them is an easy way for us to gain yards if we're all coordinated and doing the right thing. But those guys are running hard. The line is doing a great job up front finishing blocks and so forth."

Against the Falcons and their talented -- though underperforming -- offense this weekend, the running game could be key. First, it could help the Patriots defense by controlling possession and keeping Matt Ryan, Julio Jones, Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman off the field. Next are the obvious advantages for the signal-caller who could use a stress-free day in the pocket to help him solve his recent accuracy issues. 

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