Patriots' Ridley, Vereen are double trouble

Last year in the AFC Championship Game, New England Patriots running backs Stevan Ridley and Shane Vereen were two rookies in street clothes -- and neither player was happy about it.

Ridley showed flashes in his first year with the Patriots by rushing for 441 yards and averaging 5.1 yards per carry. But fumbles in consecutive games landed him on the inactive list for the rest of the playoffs. Vereen had an injury-plagued rookie campaign, played in just five games and was never able to get on track.

But perseverance and dedication have changed the fortunes of New England’s second-year running backs. This season Ridley played in all 16 games and led the Patriots with 1,263 rushing yards and 12 touchdowns. He carried the load for New England during the regular season. Vereen mostly stayed healthy in his sophomore campaign, playing in 13 games and adding 251 rushing yards off the bench.

But most importantly, the tailbacks have been double trouble in the playoffs. Ridley and Vereen combined for 219 total yards and four touchdowns in New England's 41-28 victory over the Houston Texans in the divisional round. The pair beat Houston on the ground and through the air, which was essential after losing Pro Bowl tight end Rob Gronkowski (arm) for the playoffs.

After sitting on the bench last year against the Baltimore Ravens in the AFC title game, both Patriots tailbacks will have significant roles in Sunday's postseason rematch.

“Last year it was kind of devastating and heartbreaking to not be out there with the team in a big game,” Vereen said this week. “This year I am able to contribute and I hope to help the team in the best way that I can.”

Trust is huge in New England. Ridley learned that lesson the hard way.

Talent was never an issue for the 2011 third-round pick. Ridley impressed coaches with his running style as a rookie and started to consistently earn double-digit carries in December.

But with more opportunities, Ridley had a couple of untimely fumbles. He put the ball on the ground in New England’s regular-season finale, which was recovered, then lost a fumble in the first playoff game against the Denver Broncos.

At that point, Patriots head coach Bill Belichick had seen enough. Belichick clipped the already short leash with Ridley and made the rookie inactive in both the AFC Championship Game and Super Bowl XLVI against the New York Giants. Ridley understood the Patriots’ decision.

“This is an organization that is built on a lot of tradition and they have been doing things the right way for a long time,” Ridley said. “If you don’t want to play football the [right] way, you’re not going to be here.”

Last season’s rookie disappointment motivated Ridley and Vereen to become better second-year players. The jump both players have made in Year 2 showed last week against Houston.

New England started the more experienced and sure-handed Danny Woodhead, who injured his thumb against the Texans on the first carry. Ridley and Vereen took over from there.

Ridley rushed for 82 yards and a touchdown. Vereen rushed for 41 yards, had five receptions for 83 yards and scored three touchdowns. Patriots quarterback Tom Brady called Vereen’s impressive, 33-yard touchdown reception in the third quarter to put the game out of reach a coming-of-age moment.

“On the last one, Tom threw a perfect, perfect pass and I was only able to bring it in because of where the ball was at,” Vereen explained. “It was a matchup that we were hoping to get and we were able to execute the play. Everything lined up right and Tom threw a perfect pass.”

Can Ridley and Vereen shine again? Last week was the first time both young tailbacks performed well in a pressure-packed playoff atmosphere.

The Patriots are heavy favorites for the second straight week. But New England knows better than to overlook Baltimore. The Ravens were underdogs last week when they knocked off the top-seeded Broncos in Denver. The last three meetings between Baltimore and New England have been decided by three points or fewer. So expect another close game.

The running games could be huge for both teams, especially in the second half. Ridley and Vereen were sideline spectators last year in the AFC title game. But this pair must produce for the Patriots for a second game in a row to secure a spot in Super Bowl XLVII.

“They’re a great football team. I don’t care what the numbers say,” Ridley said of Baltimore. “History shows what they do in the playoffs. They go on the road and they win. They have great leadership. They have one of the best players to ever play the game. We have ultimate respect for the Ravens.”