Stevan Ridley learned the hard way as a rookie. Hold on to the ball or grab a seat on the bench.
His fumble in the third quarter of the New England Patriots' divisional playoff win over the Denver Broncos was the final time he got the ball last season. He didn't suit up for the AFC title game and was in uniform for the Super Bowl, but didn't play.
"Being sat down (for) the AFC championship's pretty much a lesson learned for me," Ridley said. "Yeah, I learned my lesson from that. I'm trying not to repeat the same mistakes."
With a renewed focus on holding the ball high and tight with two hands, he's off to a good start this season as the Patriots' new top running back.
In the first game of his second season, he rushed 21 times for 125 yards and a touchdown and caught two passes for 27 yards. That's a total of 23 touches, 152 yards, one touchdown — and no fumbles.
Ridley actually fumbled in consecutive games as a rookie. In the season finale against the Buffalo Bills, he gained 13 yards on a run before the ball was knocked loose and rolled out of bounds. The Patriots kept possession then, but the playoff bobble was recovered by the Broncos, although the Patriots led 42-7 at the time.
"That wasn't the first fumble I had. I hope it was the last one I'll have, but what are the chances of that?" he said Wednesday before practice for the home opener against the Arizona Cardinals. "So for me, I can't sulk on the bad and I can't sit on the good. It's just to continue working and keep your nose down and you grind it out."
The Patriots drafted Ridley in the third round from LSU. He learned for a year while contributing 441 yards on 87 carries as the backup to BenJarvus Green-Ellis. Then Green-Ellis, who didn't fumble a single time in four seasons with the Patriots, signed as a free agent with the Cincinnati Bengals.
So far Ridley is making the most of his second chance.
He's shiftier and quicker than Green-Ellis. But he still has the strength to take on large defenders. He bounced off potential tacklers several times to pick up extra yardage in last Sunday's 34-13 win over the Tennessee Titans.
"You can't play the position being scared and you're going to take a lot of contact," he said, "but, as a runner, you can try to deliver the blow instead of taking the hit. I think that your career might last a little bit longer. So that's kind of my philosophy of running the ball. I'm trying to get downhill, man. Just deliver the punch instead of taking all the beatings."
The Patriots showed good offensive balance against the Titans with 35 runs and 32 pass plays. Last season they averaged 40 pass plays and 27 runs.
Their comfortable lead over Tennessee allowed them to keep the attack balanced.
"Depending on the game situation, it becomes maybe a bit out of balance if you get a substantial lead or vice versa, where the second half, you may be forced to throw it a lot more than you would like to," quarterback Tom Brady said. "But when it's a competitive game and it's still the first quarter, second quarter and you play some of these games that are going to be four-quarter games, you really have to be able to (be balanced) over the course of the entire game."
Ridley progressed as a rookie to the point where his most carries came in each of his last three regular-season games. He gained 210 yards, nearly half his season total, on 39 attempts.
Now he's building on that.
"He's a good back," Arizona coach Ken Whisenhunt said, "makes good cuts, good feet, good balance. I'm very impressed with what I've seen of him on tape."
Ridley's power and elusiveness were evident early against Tennessee. He had rushes of 17 yards on each of the Patriots first two series. He had a 7-yard reception on the third. And he started the fourth with a 15-yard run.
On one series late in the third quarter, he reeled off gains of 15 and 14 yards then scored on a 1-yard run as the Patriots took a 28-10 lead.
"Stevan did a good job of running hard in the game, made some yards after contact. He converted on some short yardage and goal-line opportunities," offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels said. "He's a young player that works very hard during course of the week and has really made strides in a lot of different areas."
So if the running game is working, why not just keep handing Ridley the ball?
"That's not my call," he said. "I just do my job, man. I'm not trying to be Superman or anything over the top."
No, just trying to keep the ball off the ground.
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