HOUSTON — The Patriots made a pair of bold moves with their running backs for Sunday’s game against the Texans. They benched Stevan Ridley and made James Develin part of the offensive plan.
Ridley, the team’s leading rusher, had lost fumbles in three straight games. So he was inactive for just the second time in his two-plus seasons with the team. The first was in the AFC Championship game two years ago, after he lost a fumble the week before.
Ridley was not on the injury report, so as a healthy scratch, it’s fair to wonder if he didn’t play because either he was being punished for his recent fumbles or the coaching staff has lost confidence in him.
But when coach Bill Belichick was asked for the reason Ridley didn’t play, he said, “Is there a reason why? Because there were 46 other players active today.”
Ridley was on the sideline for the team’s 34-31 victory, not in uniform but holding a football and encouraging his teammates.
Without him, the team’s other three tailbacks split the rushing duties, with LeGarrette Blount (12 carries, 44 yards) and Shane Vereen (10 carries, 38 yards) getting the bulk of the work.
But it was Develin, a fullback by trade, who was one of the game’s biggest surprises, making the play of the game for the Patriots. It was only a 1-yard rushing touchdown, but he broke multiple tackles before getting into the end zone to pull New England within 17-14 early in the second half. The run captured Develin perfectly: hard-nosed, unglamorous, willing to get his hands dirty.
The touchdown run was Develin’s second rushing attempt in an NFL career that began in 2010. The first came earlier in the game, a 3-yard run.
“They gave me the ball down there, and they trusted me to try and plunge that one in. I just tried not to stop my legs and get in there,” Develin said. “I don’t get the ball much. I’m blessed they gave me the opportunity, and I’m glad I made the best of it.”
Develin added one reception for 12 yards, and spent most of the game doing what he does: blocking for the stable of backs lined up behind him.
“He does a lot of the dirty work logging some tough assignments,” Belichick said. “He’s a tough, competitive guy. He’s not afraid to stick his nose in there. You need a few guys like that.”
Blount was behind Develin on the touchdown run, and applauded the effort.
“When a man doesn’t touch the ball as much and when he gets an opportunity, a lot of guys make the best of it, and he’s one of them,” Blount said. “Well-deserved touchdown, he definitely deserved that and he worked for it. I was excited for him.”
Brandon Bolden, the third tailback used Sunday, added three carries for 2 yards, and caught an 18-yard pass.
With Ridley relegated to cheerleader, the running backs combined for two touchdowns, despite rushing for just 88 yards and averaging 3.3 yards per carry.
“All of those guys contributed,” said quarterback Tom Brady, who threw for 371 yards and two touchdowns. “We’re going to need them all; that’s one of the strengths of our team. They all can run, they run hard, they usually find the hole, and if we have good numbers, we usually gain pretty good yards.”
Josh Boyce, who had been inactive last week against the Broncos, was back in uniform and handling kickoff return duties for the second time this season. Unlike the first time, against Carolina, Boyce had a chance to actually return some kicks, and had a 41-yarder in the first quarter, the longest for the Patriots this season.
According to Boyce, he relies on fellow returner Matthew Slater, who lines up near him, to give him the green light to bring the ball out of the end zone.
“It’s up to Slater to either keep me in or not. If not, I’m bringing it out,” said Boyce, who finished with six returns for a 24.8-yard average.
Boyce also caught his second pass of the season, a 6-yarder. The rookie from Texas Christian was given some snaps at receiver — as was Slater — in place of Kenbrell Thompkins, who left the game with a hip injury. After being taken to the locker room, Thompkins returned to the sideline and briefly reentered the game. He soon left the game for good, but later was spotted in the locker room, a sign that his injury didn’t require an immediate hospital visit.
Other than Thompkins, the Patriots made it through the game without any major injuries. Left guard Logan Mankins appeared to tweak his right leg but never missed a snap. Safety Steve Gregory, playing with a large club on his right hand to protect a broken thumb, played for the first time since suffering the injury Nov. 3. He was credited with three tackles.
Gronkowski on run
Tight end Rob Gronkowski caught a touchdown pass for the fourth straight game. The 23-yarder in the first quarter gave Gronkowski 42 career touchdown receptions, tied with Gino Cappelletti for fourth on the Patriots’ all-time list. That’s behind Stanley Morgan (67), Ben Coates, and Randy Moss (both with 50) . . . Julian Edelman enjoyed the win in more ways than one. He had nine catches (for 101 yards), which put him at 70 receptions for the season. That number triggered a bonus clause in Edelman’s contract, which guarantees him an extra $250,000 . . . In addition to Ridley, linebacker Steve Beauharnais and defensive lineman Jake Bequette were also inactive. They joined four injured players who had been ruled out before Sunday: cornerback Alfonzo Dennard (knee), receiver Aaron Dobson (foot), tight end Michael Hoomanawanui (knee), and offensive lineman Marcus Cannon (ankle). In Cannon’s absence, Will Svitek earned his first start with the Patriots, at right tackle . . . With his 371 yards, Brady went over 3,000 for the season, the 11th time he’s reached that number. He’s one of just six quarterbacks in NFL history with at least 11 seasons of 3,000 yards. The others: Brett Favre (18 seasons), Peyton Manning (15), Dan Marino (13), John Elway (12), and Drew Brees (11) . . . One week after giving up a season-high 280 rushing yards to the Broncos, the Patriots allowed just 121 against the Texans . . . One week after New England combined with the Broncos for 11 fumbles, the Patriots and Texans had none. The only two turnovers came on interceptions: Rookie Logan Ryan had his third of the season and Houston’s Johnathan Joseph picked off Brady in the first quarter . . . Left tackle Nate Solder lost a shoe during a third-quarter play and was replaced for one play by Josh Kline . . . Houston-area native Danny Amendola caught five passes for 54 yards . . . Defensive tackle Sealver Siliga, promoted this week from the practice squad, made his Patriots debut and had two tackles . . . Texans receiver Andre Johnson (eight catches, 121 yards) went over the 900-reception mark for his career, needing just 150 games to get there. That’s the second-fastest in league history, behind the Colts’ Marvin Harrison . . . Former Patriots linebacker Jeff Tarpinian, now with the Texans, shared a second-quarter sack with Whitney Mercilus . . . Retro rapper Young MC (“Bust a Move”) was the halftime performer, singing his signature hit, plus a few more . . . Former Astros manager Larry Dierker and former Rockets forward Robert Horry were honorary captains for the Texans . . . The Patriots’ next opponent, the Browns, are in serious trouble. Both quarterbacks have been diagnosed with concussions (Jason Campbell last week, Brandon Weeden in Sunday’s loss to the Jaguars). Cleveland will start Alex Tanney, signed off Dallas’s practice squad, if neither Campbell nor Weeden can play, according to the Associated Press.Michael Whitmer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeWhitmer.