FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — Fumbles plagued Stevan Ridley even when the ball was dry. A steady rain presents another challenge to the New England Patriots running back.
It wasn’t a problem for him Thursday.
The Patriots continued their organized team activities on a soggy day and Ridley gripped the ball as if his job depended on it. It might if he keeps fumbling.
“I told one of the young guys today, that’s the quickest way to get off the field,” Ridley said. “You can ask me first.”
He’s speaks from experience.
Ridley, a former LSU standout, lost fumbles in three consecutive games last season. After the third, in the first quarter against the Denver Broncos on Nov. 24, he was benched for the rest of New England’s 34-31 comeback win in overtime. He lost a total of four fumbles last season leading to three touchdowns and a field goal.
So he’s been focusing on avoiding a repeat this year.
“All you can do is really squeeze (the ball) high and tight,” Ridley said. “I think that was a lesson I had to go through and, hopefully, I won’t have to go through it again, but who knows?
“A little bit of adversity never hurts anybody. ... You take your mistakes, you learn from them and you grow and you just keep on pushing.”
The third-round pick from LSU fumbled just once as a rookie in 2011, but the Patriots recovered it. He lost two of his four fumbles in 2012 before the problem escalated last year. And his rushing production dropped — from 1,263 yards and 12 touchdowns on 290 carries in 2012 to 773 yards and seven touchdowns on 178 attempts.
So he’s concentrating on improving his overall focus on every play.
“I think if I can do that I can become a better player,” Ridley said. “When you lose focus on the small things — whether it’s small assignments, whether it’s carrying the football, whether it’s running a route, whether its blitz pickup — those are things that cost you your playing time.”
LeGarrette Blount emerged as the top back late in the season, rushing for 431 yards and eight touchdowns in three straight games before both runners were shut down in a 26-16 loss at Denver in the AFC championship game. Blount left for the Pittsburgh Steelers as a free agent, leaving Ridley, Shane Vereen and Brandon Bolden as coach Bill Belichick’s veteran backs.
“You can go out there and be a starter one game and the next game you’re two or three guys behind,” Ridley said. “That’s what Coach stresses to us every week. We have to go out there and be as competitive as we can be. He’s going to play the matchups game and we just have to be unselfish enough to capitalize on the plays that we get.”
Ridley’s four fumbles last year came on dry days. It rained during the last regular-season game, a 34-20 win over the Buffalo Bills, and the first playoff games, a 43-22 win over the Indianapolis Colts. Both games were at Foxborough.
On Thursday, three months before the regular season, rain fell throughout practice.
“There’s no contact so you should be running your routes perfect. You should be catching every ball that’s thrown to you. You shouldn’t be dropping anything on the ground,” Ridley said. “Rain, sleet, whatever’s out there, whatever the conditions are, you have to find a way to fight through that.”
Some had trouble. One receiver fell while trying to cut.
Wet or dry, Ridley knows he must do that all the time.
“We’re practicing either way. Coach says he doesn’t care about the conditions — rain, sleet, snow — we’re playing in them,” he said. “You just never know, but whatever it is there are no excuses.”
Ridley is entering the final season of his contract and tries not to think much about it.
“I have to go out there and play football and hit it hard and run the ball and get wide open,” he said. “I just have to be the same player I’ve been.”
“Try to go out there and be mistake-free.”