NASHVILLE — With BenJarvus Green-Ellis taking his talents to Cincinnati, the leading returning rusher for the Patriots is Stevan Ridley, a second-year back from LSU. The same player who fumbled twice late last season, who was inactive for the AFC Championship game, and who suited up but didn’t play in the Super Bowl.
It was fair to speculate what role Ridley would serve in his second season, or if the fumbles would be difficult for a young player to shake.
If the Patriots were still holding any ball-control issues against Ridley, it wasn’t apparent Sunday. He had the best game of his professional career, carrying 21 times for 125 yards and scoring a touchdown in New England’s 34-13 win over the Titans to open the 2012 season at LP Field. He added two catches for 27 yards.
“I think it’s a little better than what I envisioned. Personally, it was a blessing to be out there on a Sunday and I’m just very thankful to start the year off with a good game,” Ridley said. “I just go out there and try not to overdo anything, just go out there and play well. They opened some holes for me, and I just hit them and got downhill. If there was green grass to run to, I just tried to hit it hard.”
Ridley’s running enabled the Patriots to have the kind of offensive balance they’ll gladly take all season. More passing yards (236) than rushing (162), but more rushes (35) than passes (31). That’s almost always a sign of success.
“We’ve made a commitment to running the football, and you saw it today,” said quarterback Tom Brady. “A lot of carries by the backs, they had a lot of opportunities. When you can control the tempo of the game with running the ball, it really helps the rest of the team, helps special teams, helps defense.
“You just can’t drop back and throw it 50 times a game. If we’re around 30 passes a game, that’s right where you want to be.”
Ridley showed flashes of ability as a rookie, averaging a team-best 5.1 yards per carry and giving the Patriots the kind of backfield burst the others couldn’t provide. He tore through the Titans on Sunday, ripping off five runs of at least 15 yards. He had a pair of 17-yarders, one on the opening series; a 16-yarder highlighted his last series, late in the fourth quarter that resulted in a field goal that extended the Patriots’ lead to 31-13.
He opened that drive by catching a short pass from Brady and taking it 20 yards, but it was what he did when his quarterback handed him the ball that made the biggest impact.
“Stevan ran hard, broke some tackles,” coach Bill Belichick said. “Of course, it always starts up front. The offensive line did a good job. We had some good holes, The backs ran hard.”
On a day in which 2,000-yard rusher Chris Johnson was held to just 4 yards on 11 carries by the Patriots defense, the better back on this day deflected much of the individual praise.
“The coaches did an exceptional job of finding the [plays] that were doing well and they just kept calling them until they stopped them,” Ridley said. “The offensive line was just blocking and getting on people, it was bodies on bodies, and I just had to hit my creases and run.
“When you get days like today where you’re running the ball well, you can definitely feel it. I didn’t do anything out of the ordinary.”
If this is Ridley’s ordinary, Patriots fans will enjoy watching him play. His teammates will enjoy watching him, too.
“He’s worked so hard this offseason, and he’s really done everything he can to be the best teammate and the best player he can be, and fortunately that transferred to the field today,” said Matthew Slater. “I’m proud of the way he went out there and performed.”
Anyone’s first 100-yard game in the NFL is a big moment, and Ridley allowed himself a few minutes to appreciate what he accomplished. To a point.
“We’ve got something to build on. We can’t be satisfied. I’m not satisfied,” Ridley said. “I’m going to enjoy this win today, the game I had today, but we’re right back to work on Monday. That’s how we live and breathe around here.”Michael Whitmer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeWhitmer.