Remember that debate over whether the New England Patriots would ultimately miss running back Stevan Ridley or linebacker Jerod Mayo more when both went down with season-ending injuries against the Buffalo Bills back in October?
Well, that was silly.
As it turns out, the Patriots machine hasn’t missed a step without either Ridley or Mayo, who went down leading New England in rushing yards (340) and tackles (53), respectively. Enter not only Shane Vereen, Jonas Gray, LeGarrette Blount, Dont’a Hightower, Akeem Ayers, Jamie Collins, and…wait, who were we talking about again?
The absences of Ridley and Mayo have been such non-factors for the 11-3 Patriots that it isn’t difficult to see the writing on the wall as it pertains to each player’s future in New England. Ridley is a free agent, and after Gray and Blount have proven the Patriots to be the beneficiary of interchangeable parts, he won’t return unless it’s on a cheap deal that offers him the opportunity to prove he’s healthy after tearing his ACL and MCL on Oct. 12 on the turf in Orchard Park, N.Y.
Mayo, who suffered a torn patella tendon in Buffalo, has played in only 12 games over the last two seasons, carries a $10.6 million cap hit in 2015, which can mean only one thing.
The man is gone.
Head coach Bill Belichick’s affection for Mayo is noted, but even he can’t possibly watch what’s going on without his starting inside linebacker and come to the conclusion that Mayo is worth $6.25 million next season. Since Mayo went down, the Patriots have allowed an average of 18.9 points per game, a number that was 21.5 per game with Mayo in the lineup. Then again, Mayo was around for the punchless Raiders and Vikings, while Hightower, Ayers, and Collins have shone in a stretch of games against NFL elite quarterbacks like Aaron Rodgers, Andrew Luck, and Peyton Manning.
“I think defensively the more things a player can do defensively the more valuable the player is,” Belichick said last month. “So, if he can rush and cover or play the run and pass rush or play man and zone or play corner and safety or inside and outside, yeah, those things just add value to your defense. You don’t have to substitute as much. You’re able to keep the same players on the field and do different things.
“So, if you have a guy that can rush, that’s good. If you have a guy that can play man-to-man, that’s good. You don’t have to worry about that matchup. You can play zone, he’s instinctive, then that’s good. You can call whatever you want. That would be great if you could keep the same guys on the field all the time and have enough versatility to do what you want to do, have safeties that can cover receivers and have linebackers that could play the run and could blitz and could play out in space in coverage. That would be ideal. That would be great. Just put 11 guys out there and you would be forcing the match-ups on the offense. But they’re hard to find.”
What Mayo gave the Patriots as the defensive signal-caller, Hightower has more than adequately filled the role. New England hasn’t allowed more than 26 points (Packers) to any team since he went down, and the consensus is that the unit is only getting better each week, not languishing in fear over losing its captain.
But anyone who thought the Patriots were seriously at more of a risk at losing Ridley, well they simply must not have heard of Jonas Gray.
OK, so we will admit that in looking back at a few of the online stories from October announcing that Ridley and Mayo were done for the season, there were a handful of comments from readers who mentioned Jonas Gray, who was then merely making his case on the Patriots’ practice squad.
Yet lest anyone figure Gray’s limited success this season is simply as a by-product of the system needs to watch how he and Blount worked together on Sunday against Miami. Gray gave a significant change of pace to Blount’s bowling ball wrecking crew, a burst of speed that added up to 62 yards on 11 carries in the second half of New England’s 41-13 blowout win. That’s two games now in which Gray has been allowed to emerge from the cavern of shame that Belichick sent him to after his tardiness to practice last month, despite running for 200 yards and four touchdowns in his coming out party in Indianapolis.
He’s averaging 4.9 yards per carry, best on the team. Pittsburgh’s Le’Veon Bell and Houston’s Arian Foster also average 4.9 yards per carry. Ridley averaged 3.6 yards per carry. Not bad, but it’s more in the Joique Bell-Knile Davis category.
“I think each of our backs has their own unique style,” Belichick said. “I’d say this group has a variety of styles, if you will, and they’ve all been productive.”
It’s a dynamic that the Patriots certainly didn’t expect to have midway through the season, with or without Ridley. Blount was on the back-burner with the Steelers until he mouthed his way out of town. He’s become such a perfect complement to Gray that other teams (et tu, Denver?) have to wonder how Belichick gets all the luck, even with a player any other team could have grabbed off waivers. Just like that, the run game (29 carries, 108 yards Sunday against the Dolphins) is stronger than at any point this season, igniting the hope that Gray is finally, mercifully out of the doghouse.
“Jonas is a great running back,” fullback James Develin said. “He’s a no-nonsense guy: just gets his pads down and gets those tough yards. It’s fun to block for a guy like that. And when he starts rolling, it’s always good to get the run game going a little bit.”
Too bad for Ridley and Mayo. But maybe the debate isn’t which one the Patriots will miss more.
Maybe it’s which one they have forgotten about already.
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