FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — After three weeks of Tom Brady’s record-setting passing, the Patriots finally put some balance into their offense.
And much of it came from a surprising source, rookie running back Stevan Ridley.
The third-round draft pick from LSU burst through holes then outraced defenders, gaining a team-high 97 yards on just 10 rushes in New England’s 31-19 win at the Oakland Raiders on Sunday. He ran 33 yards for a touchdown and picked up 20 and 25 yards on two other carries.
“It’s backyard football to me,” Ridley said Monday. “I go out there and when I see a hole or see a crease I’m just hitting it wide open. In the pros, it’s small sometimes, but sometimes it’s big, so you just have to go out there and just trust your eyes and trust your vision and let the rest take care of itself.”
In college, he started just nine of the 39 games he played. Then he joined an offense led by a quarterback who was named unanimously as last season’s NFL most valuable player. This season, Brady set a league record for most yards passing in a three-game stretch with 1,327.
But coach Bill Belichick wanted more balance.
He got it in Oakland when the Patriots had 30 runs and 30 passes. They gained 183 yards on the ground and 226 through the air, 161 fewer than Brady’s previous low for the season.
Still, Belichick was pleased.
“I thought this was maybe Brady’s best game in terms of some of the checks he made, some of the adjustments, where he went with the ball, his decision-making, his overall management of the game,” Belichick said. “Obviously, he has played well, but I thought he really did a good job (Sunday).”
That was to be expected. What Ridley did wasn’t.
He probably got extra playing time because Danny Woodhead left late in the first half with an apparent left ankle injury and didn’t return. Ridley and BenJarvus Green-Ellis, with 75 yards on 16 attempts, got most of the carries.
“Ridley and Benny both made some guys miss, broke tackles, and took five, 10, 12-yard gains and took them into a little bit more than that,” Belichick said.
The Patriots most balanced attack of the season improved their record to 3-1 and caused problems for the Raiders.
“It was huge,” Brady said. “When you see us run the ball in from (the 33-) yard line, that was huge. That’s important. It sets up a lot of things. If (defenses) can’t stop the run, then you’re just going to keep running it and you’re going to control the entire tempo of the game.”
As usual, Belichick provided no update Monday on injured players. Star linebacker Jerod Mayo reportedly hurt the medial collateral ligament in his left knee midway through the second quarter and is expected to miss at least several games.
“I’m not going to guess at” how long Mayo will be sidelined, Belichick said.
Gary Guyton, a four-year veteran, was Mayo’s primary replacement. Ridley was Woodhead’s. The rookie even feels comfortable catching passes, one of Woodhead’s strengths.
“Every back’s got to be able to go in there and pull each other’s load when one of us goes down,” Ridley said.
That’s true for every position. At right tackle, rookie Nate Solder, a first-round pick, has played well in place of injured Sebastian Vollmer on a line that has new starters at three spots.
“It just seems like that offensive line has been together for a good while, with the green grass that I’m seeing when I’m coming through the line,” Ridley said. “Tom always does a great job in the passing game and our receivers are blocking downfield as well as making the catches. So, really, our offense is complimenting each other.”
Linebacker Dane Fletcher, who made the team as a rookie free agent last year, is filling in on defense and offense. He should get more playing time at linebacker while Mayo recovers and has gotten plays at fullback, a job Belichick sprung on him not long ago.
“Maybe he said it like the first game or that game week,” Fletcher said. “They tell me to go run my face into some people, I’ll do it.”
One of his blocks helped Green-Ellis score on a 1-yard run midway through the second quarter when the Patriots went ahead 14-10.
It didn’t take Fletcher much time to learn his new duties.
“I don’t have as many things as Brady has going on in his head,” he said.
So anything Brady’s teammates can do to pick up the slack for him — like moving the ball on the ground — should help.
Even if it comes from a rookie playing just his fourth pro game.
“I really wouldn’t say I pick up the load for Tom because Tom’s got a big load on his shoulders,” Ridley said. “When they call my number, just make a play and make a positive play at that. So I’m just a rookie right now.
“And I’m still just learning.”