NFL New England Patriots

New England Patriots 2013 Training Camp Profile: Stevan Ridley

Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

New England Patriots running back Stevan Ridley had a breakout year in 2012, but in some ways he snuck up on defenses. That will not be the case this year. If Ridley wants to repeat his production from last year, he’s going to have to be even better in 2013.

The Patriots have had one of the best passing games in the league for the better part of the last decade. Tom Brady is the unequivocal leader of the team, but it was the emergence of a solid running game last year that gives the offense the chance to be even better.

That new found dedication to running the ball led to Ridley putting up 1,263 yards and 12 touchdowns, and that could be just the beginning for the young back.

Last year, he both literally and figuratively snuck up on NFL defenses. Heading into the season, it wasn’t even clear that he was the number one back on the depth chart, an honor that could change from game to game for the Patriots in previous years. But it wasn’t just his spot in the lineup that was a surprise, so many of his carries were too.

Ridley gained many of those 1,263 yards on plays in the Pats’ hurry up offense. The team would rush to the line, then when the other team couldn’t get set in time Brady would snap the ball, hand it off to Ridley, who would run downhill on a defense that wasn’t ready to stop him. He would have five to ten yards before they knew what hit them.

But that won’t happen this year. This year defenses will know to prepare for Ridley and know to be on the lookout for his sneak attacks. This year he’s going to have to work much harder if he wants to replicate his success from 2012.

And he’ll do that, and then some. Mainly because he’s entering his running back prime (I’m no statistician, but it would be cool to see if one could be made that would quantify the sweet spot between enough carries in a career to have experience, but not too many to wear a guy down), but also because the offense is morphing into a more running back friendly version of itself.

Two out of the three best weapons the Patriots have had at their disposal on offense the past few years, tight ends Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski, head into the year with injury concerns, and whether or not the team can count on them remains to be seen. Not to mention, that third weapon, receiver Wes Welker, is going to be catching passes from another future Hall of Fame quarterback in 2013.

New England may end up having no choice but to go to the ground game more often this year, and that will only benefit Ridley and his stat line.

But it’s not just Ridley who will benefit from an increase in his workload. One of the Patriots’ weaknesses the last few years has been protecting the leads late in games that their prolific offense generates early in them. Much of the blame for blowing these leads has gone to their defense, and some of that is warranted, but a way to take that pressure off the defense is to run the ball to secure the win.

Running the ball late in games has the benefits off keeping the clock moving and avoiding negative plays like sacks and interceptions. The thing is, it only works if you have a back that can get you first downs. And not first downs when the defense isn’t set and thinks you’re going to pass, but first downs when they know the run is coming.

And that’s the next step that Ridley needs to take to become a true factor back in the NFL. He needs to be able to pick up those tough first downs late in games when the defense knows it’s coming. And 2013 will be the year he does.

Ridley is ready to build on his breakout season in 2012, with even more success in 2013. His role in the offense should increase with the loss of Welker and the injuries to Hernandez and Gronkowski, especially late in games when the team needs to secure a win.

Look for Ridley to have another great year in New England.

Ben Sullivan is an NFL writer for RantSports.com. Follow him on Twitter @bensullivan52, “Like” him on Facebook and add him to your network on Google.