New England Patriots: Biggest Surprise Player of the Season So Far

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New England Patriots: Biggest Surprise Player of the Season So Far
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Stevan Ridley. Photo by Jack Newton.

COMMENTARY | The 2013 NFL season for the New England Patriots hasn't gone nearly as smoothly as their 3-0 record suggests. Despite starting the year against three clearly inferior teams, the Buffalo Bills, the New York Jets and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the Patriots only managed to squeak by their first two opponents, winning by a combined total of 5 points in wins against the Bills and Jets, and it took them the entire first half to find their rhythm against the Buccaneers in Week 3. One of the biggest reasons the team has struggled so significantly is due to the lackluster play of third-year running back Stevan Ridley, a major surprise considering how strong Ridley was last year.

Ridley, a 2011 third-round draft pick out of Louisiana State University, had a breakout season in 2012, rushing for 1,263 yards in only 11 starts. His 4.4 yards per carry average and 12 touchdowns was the best single-season performance of any Patriots running back since Corey Dillon ran for 1,635 yards and 12 touchdowns in 2004.

So far this season, however, Ridley's numbers have taken a major dip. In the first three games, Ridley averaged 40.3 yards, 0 touchdowns, 3.4 yards per carry and he fumbled the ball twice against the Buffalo Bills, earning him a spot on the bench for the remainder of the game.

Ridley's struggles have largely been a result of his inability to run outside and behind the tackles. In his first three games, Ridley carried the ball 17 times behind either the left or right tackle for a grand total of 42 yards. If Ridley continues to struggle running outside of and behind the tackles, you can expect the low production to continue.

Last season, when the Patriots' passing game was operating at a much higher level, Ridley had a greater degree of success running the ball up the middle because defensive linebackers on opposing teams had to hang back to cover any potential plays up the middle. Because Tom Brady and the young receiving corps has been unable to attain any kind of success in the air so far this year, defenses are able to collapse the middle of the line of scrimmage more frequently, making life for running backs like Ridley more difficult.

While it's still too early for Patriots fans to expect a permanent change at the running back position, Stevan Ridley must know that if a big game doesn't come soon, his job could be at risk, especially after he watched LeGarrette Blount lead the team in carries and rushing yards and the now-healthy Brandon Bolden break off an impressive 46 yard run in Week 3 against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

You can watch the New England Patriots play the Atlanta Falcons on Sunday, Sept. 29 at 8:30 p.m. EDT on NBC.

Don't agree with me? Tell me why I am wrong on Twitter @THATCelticsGuy

Justin Haskins is a New England native and a freelance journalist. He has been obsessively following Boston professional sports for 10 years and has been published in numerous online publications and websites.

Statistics provided by Pro-football-reference.com and ESPN.com.

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