December 10, 2012

NFL: Balancing it out

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. (AP) -- Stevan Ridley has emerged as a top running back in his second pro season. He's not the only Patriots rusher Texans coach Gary Kubiak has to worry about.

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STEPPING UP: New England Patriots running back Stevan Ridley (22) is third in the AFC with 1,010 yards going into tonight’s game against the Houston Texans. The emergence of Ridley has helped balance out the Patriots offense this season.

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The revived New England ground game, with Shane Vereen and Brandon Bolden as backups, has brought balance to an offense that relied more heavily on quarterback Tom Brady in recent years.

Ridley, in his second pro season, is third in the AFC with 1,010 yards rushing going into tonight's game between the Texans (11-1), who have the best record in the AFC and have clinched a playoff berth, and the Patriots (9-3), who have locked up the AFC East title.

"He's a heck of a player," Kubiak said. "They've had a few different backs back there. It's what they do. It's almost like anybody they put back there is successful. They play young guys. Tom has got them in the right play all the time. They're not only running the ball well, but those backs out of the backfield catch the ball extremely well."

Vereen has rushed for just 173 yards and three touchdowns but has scored on an 83-yard pass play. Bolden, a rookie who returns tonight after sitting out a four-game suspension for violating the NFL policy on performance-enhancing substances, is second on the team with 234 yards rushing and two touchdowns.

"They're very capable of running the ball very well," Kubiak said.

And, of course, outstanding throwing it.

Brady is having his usual strong season with 25 touchdown passes and just four interceptions, and wide receiver Wes Welker leads the NFL with 92 receptions.

That pairing could be a real problem for Houston without cornerback Brice McCain, who had surgery on his left foot on Monday. Brandon Harris, a second-year pro, will replace him despite having played in just four games this season.

"Welker has 92 catches and I don't think Brandon has 29 plays," Houston defensive coordinator Wade Phillips said. "It's a challenge, certainly. We expect him to step up and play. We're going to try to help him in certain areas, but it's going to be one-on-one some. It's going to be one-on-one pass rush with our guys to put pressure on the guy and it's going to be one-on-one for our guys to cover them sometimes. That's just how it is."

Balance also is a strong point for the Texans with Arian Foster, the AFC's leading rusher with 1,102 yards, and Andre Johnson, seventh in the NFL with 74 catches.

"He's a great player," Patriots coach Bill Belichick said of Johnson, a 10-year veteran. "He's done it for a long time. He puts up big numbers every year and people are keying on him. They're looking for him and he keeps producing. He's a hard guy to cover."

And then there's Foster, the NFL leader with 15 touchdowns.

The Texans disguise their plays well and make effective use of play action, which requires defenders to be well disciplined.

"Gary does a good job, scheme-wise, of balancing everything out -- the running game, the passing game, play-actions, dropbacks, complementary routes, complementary runs -- everything kind of ties together," Belichick said.

The Patriots and the Texans are the only two offenses ranked in the top 10 in yards rushing and passing.

"If you're stopping one thing, then you're probably light on something else and it won't take them too long to find that and exploit it," Belichick said. Johnson "is definitely open on a few plays where it wouldn't matter who the receiver is, the guy is wide open and is going to make a big play. But there are also a lot of plays that he makes on his own."

(Continued on page 2)

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