After fumbling in three consecutive games, Patriots running back Stevan Ridley has slowly earned back the confidence of Bill Belichick.
It started with a benching against the Houston Texans; during that game, Ridley was spotted on the sideline, holding a football as he watched his team win without him. It continued with piecemeal performances against the Cleveland Browns and Miami Dolphins.
Belichick showed the utmost confidence in the 2012 feature back, though, when he gave Ridley an opportunity to carry the ball in the fourth quarter of the Patriots' resounding win over the Baltimore Ravens as New England tried to ice the win by killing the clock.
It's been a nice story, but the next chapter is do or die for both Ridley and the Patriots -- the playoffs.
There can be no middle-ground when it comes to confidence in the playoffs. Either the Patriots believe Ridley can hang onto the ball when it matters most, or they don't. The best way to find out is to feed Ridley against the Buffalo Bills.
Doing so would also feed into Belichick's primary objective -- an objective which he says drives the team's preference for a running-back-by-committee philosophy in the first place.
"I prefer scoring and winning. Thatâ€™s my preference," the coach said.
Scoring and winning against the Bills defense starts with slowing down their fierce pass-rush. Running the ball would force the defensive line to stay in their rush lanes, instead of charging hard upfield with reckless abandon.
The Bills defensive line has been stellar when it comes to bringing down quarterbacks this season. Defensive ends Jerry Hughes and Mario Williams and defensive tackle Kyle Williams all have over 10 sacks, and defensive tackle Marcell Dareus has 7.5 sacks this season. As a team, the Bills have logged 56 sacks, which leads the league and is also the most in team history. Three of their four defensive linemen have logged 10 sacks or more this season.
On the season, the Bills have allowed 4.2 yards per rush attempt, which ranks 20th in the NFL; in contrast, their pass defense allows just 5.3 yards per pass attempt, which is the third-best average in the league. That pass defense has stiffened over the past five weeks, during which time they've allowed just 4.1 YPA through the air and 49.6 percent completions, both of which lead the NFL.
Running the ball against the Bills may be the best option in Belichick's never-ending quest to capitalize on matchups. The Bills' most frequently used defensive personnel grouping is the dime package, which they use on 8.8 percent of defensive snaps. With four linemen, a linebacker and six defensive backs on the field, the numbers are in favor of the running game.
Six of the Bills' 10 most frequently used lineup combinations on defense are either nickel or dime packages. Some of that may be based on matching up with the opponent's personnel, but that's where the Patriots feast.
"I think they were really challenging us to run the ball," said Tom Brady after the Patriots ran the ball down the Bills' collective throats for 247 yards in a 52-28 victory. "They had some little guys on the field with our big personnel groupings, so at that point you have to try to take advantage of it. You can't just keep throwing into a heavy pass defense, so we ran it."
If the Bills load up to stop the pass, the Patriots will have an opportunity to get things going on the ground.
What's more, the weather forecast calls for rain, so Ridley's ball security will be tested.
Regardless, this is the Patriots last chance to gauge their own confidence in Ridley before the postseason, at which point, they'll want to know they can count on him to avoid another costly mistake.
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