Patriots coaches deserve criticism for Ridley, Ryan benchings

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The Patriots were beyond fortunate to win yesterday's game after an abysmal first half put the team in a 17-3 hole. Not only was the first half performance dreadful, but it was also avoidable, as it came with two key contributors on the bench.

Running back Stevan Ridley didn't see a single snap in the first quarter. Without him, the offense's possessions produced an interception, a three-and-out and a six-and-out. When the Pats finally got the ball back, down 14-0, they finally turned to the guy who rushed for 1,200 yards and 12 touchdowns just last season and promptly saw him rip off 4 and 7 yard gains on his first two carries. Despite gaining 23 yards on his five carries (4.6 yards a pop), it was Brandon Bolden who got the call on 3rd and 2 from the Miami 15 yard line. Bolden would be stuffed for a loss of 1, forcing the Pats to settle for a field goal.

Ridley would finish the game with 14 carries for 79 yards and a touchdown. Despite averaging 5.6 yards a carry, he only played 20 of the Patriots 65 snaps.

On the other side of the field, rookie cornerback Logan Ryan seemed like a logical candidate for more playing time with Aqib Talib out. Ryan had stepped up with a good showing last week, including a pick six, after Kyle Arrington's early struggles earned himself a spot on the bench.

Instead, the Rutgers rookie didn't play a single snap in the first half and could only watch as Ryan Tannehill picked on the likes of Arrington (who is struggling through a groin injury) and Marquice Cole. Tannehill was 11-19 for 72 yards and two touchdowns in the first half, including a 5-6 performance on Miami's first touchdown drive.

Ryan came in and played 31 of the defense's 40 second half snaps. Like Ridley, he promptly made his presence felt once he got on the field, coming through with a huge strip sack on Miami's second possession of the third quarter. The turnover directly set up a Brandon Bolden touchdown that tied the game at 17.

Defensive Coordinator Matt Patricia certainly deserves some credit for dialing up a great blitz call that allowed Ryan to come free on Tannehill's blindside, but the rookie also deserves some credit for recognizing and capitalizing on the chance to produce a turnover. The Patriots signature ballhawking ways (they are now at 35 consecutive games with a forced turnover) already seem to have rubbed off on Ryan, who made several admirable attempts to physically rip the ball way from Dolphins ball carriers throughout the second half.

The strip sack was merely the biggest highlight of Ryan's impressive game. The rookie also nearly came up with his second pick-six in as many weeks, as he made a great read to cut in front of a careless Ryan Tannehill throw. He provided solid coverage, stabilizing a secondary that was reeling from missing Talib, Arrington's injury and Cole's first half struggles. Finally, the rookie corner rewarded Patricia's decision to blitz him with another sack in the fourth quarter, giving him 2 of the Patriots 6 second half sacks.

All that production leads to the obvious question of why these two players weren't on the field earlier. It's a curious decision, considering Ryan's strong showing last week and Ridley's solid play most of the season.

CSNNE's Tom E. Curran noted that both players had instances of showboating during Week Seven's loss to the Jets. Ryan was fined $10,000 for imitating Marshawn Lynch and grabbing his crotch during a midair dive into the end zone, while Ridley slowed down to tease a Jets defender before jogging into the end zone. Both players denied that their benchings were for disciplinary reasons after the game, while Bill Belichick offered a very forthcoming and helpful "We do what we think is best to win."

At the risk of turning in my "In Bill We Trust" fanclub credentials, I have to disagree with the coach here. Benching your best running back and one of your top two (healthy) cornerbacks is not "what is best to win", especially when your depth is severely tested by injuries. The Patriots simply aren't good enough to afford to keep their best players off the field and were very lucky to get away with it yesterday.

ESPN Boston's Mike Reiss took a closer look at the snap counts today and concluded that he didn't think Ridley's lack of playing time was the result of any disciplinary action by the Patriots. Reiss notes that Ridley and LeGarrette Blount seemed to rotate with each other as the "big back" in the Pats offense, with Brandon Bolden getting more snaps than either due to his role in the passing game.

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However, that seems in line with what has become a disturbing, season-long trend for the Patriots. Despite Ridley producing at a similar rate to last year's 1,200 yard season, the team seems determined to rotate all it's backs evenly onto the field. There's something to be said for keeping all of the running backs fresh, but it's clear at this point that Ridley is the team's best runner. Whenever he's had opportunities, he's turned them into good, positive yards, first downs and touchdowns. It's become beyond maddening to watch the offense struggle to generate yards and points while a legitimate, top-flight back with the capability to grind out tough yards sits on the bench for more than two thirds of the game.

Offensive Coordinator did a much better job of sticking with the run this week (the Patriots had 37 carries against only 22 passes), but he deserves criticism for continuing to misuse Ridley. With Shane Vereen still sidelined and both Rob Gronkowksi and Danny Amendola still working their way back to full speed after missing significant time with injuries, Ridley is arguably the teams best and most consistent weapon. With the offense struggling to consistently string together positive plays into drives (and points), it makes no sense to not feed Ridley at least 20 carries a game, including all key short yardage situations. It's time to let Ridley be the feature back he's proven he can be.