FOXBOROUGH — It took 61 plays, spanning two games, before the Patriots trusted Stevan Ridley with the ball again after his Week 1 fumble against the Bills was returned for a touchdown.
When Ridley was stripped of the ball by Steelers safety Troy Polamalu during the opening drive of the third quarter Sunday, a feeling of deja vu might have begun to emerge at Gillette Stadium, but it wasn’t coming from the home team’s sideline. The Patriots didn’t punish the third-year running back for the fumble, or even give him any time to sulk and stew about it.
As soon as the Steelers converted Ridley’s fumble into a touchdown to cut the Patriots’ lead to 24-17, he went right back onto the field with the offense, a sign of confidence that wasn’t simply window dressing. Ridley was handed the ball on first down (3-yard gain), then caught a pass on second down (5-yard gain).
A message was sent to Ridley that September day in Buffalo. Another message, with a much different meaning, was sent Sunday.
“For the coaches to stick with me and ride it out, it said a lot,” Ridley said Tuesday, after the team’s only practice of the week. “Our team, everybody has made their mistakes at different times, and that’s something I’ve had to work on and focus on since I’ve been here. For me, I just couldn’t hang my head. It wasn’t a time for me to hang my head, it was a time for me to go out there and try to close that game out, because that’s what our team needed me to do.
“That’s really what I did. I just leaned on my offensive line, they had made some creases in there for me the whole night.”
The line and Ridley worked better together than they had all season in the 55-31 win over the Steelers. Facing what had been the league’s 27th-ranked rushing defense, Ridley carried 26 times for 115 yards. Both numbers marked season highs, and Ridley added two rushing touchdowns, his sixth in the last four games.
It’s the kind of performance that had Ridley seeing both sides. He’d love to be playing this Sunday, riding the momentum and hoping for some carryover, but this week’s bye gives Ridley and the rest of the Patriots valuable time to rest, reflect, and get recharged for the final seven regular-season games.
“I think it’s always good to clear your head a little bit. We’ve been at it hard for nine weeks now, so for us, it’s been a little bit long,” Ridley said. “There’s still a lot of football left to be played, so we can’t completely check out of it. We’ll just have to go, get this down time, and take some time to rest and relax. I’m really just going to take some time and get away, I think that’s much-needed, and I think that’s what everybody on this team really needs.”
Ridley’s fumble at Buffalo was careless, because he lost the ball without being touched. Sunday, though, was a great defensive play by a proven defensive star. Big difference, perhaps one of the reasons Ridley was sent right back out there and given another chance.
“Sometimes the defense makes a good play,” offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels said. “But I think most importantly is how we respond and react to that. I thought he did a good job of coming back and running the ball hard and protecting the quarterback after that happened.
“If you didn’t make mistakes, this game would be a lot easier. But everybody does and it’s more important how we handle that as opposed to trying to keep track of all those different things and penalize guys during the course of the games. We’re all out there trying to do our best and we understand that things are going to happen. I thought he responded well to that.”
Outwardly, maybe. Ridley might not have shown it to McDaniels and his teammates, but he said the latest fumble stung then, and stings now.
“The ball was on the ground, and that was definitely the low [point] of my night, for sure,” Ridley said. “I hated it, and it made me sick, but I really think that it motivated me more to go out there and finish the game strong.”
He did that, rushing for more yards after the fumble (60) than before (55). It also brought an individual benchmark that Ridley long had coveted.
“I try to go out there every week and light it up, so to have a good game and finally get over that 100-yard mark, something I’d been searching for all year, but I’m trying to go out there and repeat it,” he said. “It’s not any time to lay down or be too happy and look for the confetti to fall or anything just yet. I just have to keep grinding it out.”Michael Whitmer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeWhitmer.