ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. — Years from now, when Shane Vereen is reminiscing about his first 100-yard rushing game in the NFL, you wonder if Stevan Ridley’s role will be forgotten or diminished with the passage of time.
Vereen figured to be an important part of the Patriots offense Sunday against the Bills, with his ability to run and also catch the ball out of the backfield. And he was, especially late, when he touched the ball five times on the final drive and gained 31 key yards, helping set up the winning field goal in the 23-21 win at Buffalo.
But Vereen’s playing time spiked after Ridley was benched midway through the second quarter because his biggest issue – fumbling – inexplicably resurfaced, without even being hit.
Once handed the opportunity, Vereen took it from there, carrying 14 times for a career-high 101 yards, and adding seven receptions for 58 yards.
The postgame comments from the two running backs were marked by how different they were. When asked about his big game, Vereen took a team-first approach. When asked about his benching, Ridley took individual responsibility.
“As a running back you want the ball any time you can, and when they trust you with the ball you’ve got to be able to produce and make plays with it, and we were able to do that today,” said Vereen, whose previous rushing best was a 49-yard effort last season against the Jets. “I think it’s more important that the team won today, honestly. That’s our goal every week.”
Ridley repeatedly mentioned two turnovers he was responsible for, although officially it was only one. His second-quarter fumble — Ridley lost the ball when he slipped while cutting — was returned 74 yards by Da’Norris Searcy for a Buffalo touchdown. On the second play of the game, Ridley also lost the ball, but was ruled down by contact before it popped loose. A Bills coaching challenge was denied, but perhaps only because there was not enough replay evidence to overturn the call.
Ridley was spared, at least momentarily. When the second video review was upheld — it was a scoring play, which doesn’t need a coach’s challenge — Ridley slammed his helmet to the turf, walked over to the bench, and sat down by himself. He didn’t play again.
“Two balls on the ground is unacceptable,” he said. “I have to accept where I messed up and grow from it. That’s really all you can do, not point the finger, just come back to work tomorrow.”
Where Ridley might be on the depth chart the next time it’s issued might be a closely-watched story line as the Patriots begin preparations for Thursday night’s home opener against the Jets. Ridley, who rushed for 1,263 yards last season, was asked if he thinks he needs to win his starting job back.
“Absolutely,” Ridley said. “Two turnovers, man, and I was out of there the rest of the game.
“I’m happy for [Vereen], I really am. [It’s tough] for me, to be in this situation, but as a teammate, I have to pat him on the back and just tell him that he did a great job in helping us win this game today.”
Both Ridley and Brandon Bolden rushed for at least 100 yards in last season’s win at Buffalo. Vereen made it three players in two years, becoming one of the Patriots’ two go-to players (along with receiver Danny Amendola) with the game on the line. He showed an impressive burst of speed through the line, ripping off runs of 21, 20, and 19 yards.
“I thought Shane stepped up and did a good job for us,” coach Bill Belichick said. “We counted on him a lot and he came through for us.”
Belichick singled out Vereen’s final carry, a 15-yard run on first down with 56 seconds left that put the ball at Buffalo’s 14-yard-line, definitely within field-goal range. Vereen had a chance to run out of bounds and stop the clock, but he chose to cut back toward the left hash and stay inbounds. The move forced the Bills to call a timeout.
“It was a good play,” Belichick said. “A smart play.”
Thanks to Ridley, Vereen had plenty of those Sunday.