Young running backs emerge for Patriots

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Stevan Ridley (left) and Shane Vereen (right) have made the Patriots offense more dynamic.The secret is out on the pair of dynamic young talents the New England Patriots have in their backfield.

Second-year running backs Stevan Ridley and Shane Vereen beat the Houston Texans on the ground and through the air Sunday for 219 combined yards and four touchdowns, helping to propel the Patriots into the AFC Championship game against the Baltimore Ravens.

Stopping this young duo will not be easy for the Ravens, especially with Tom Brady at the top of his game.

Here is a look at the matchup problems each player will present Sunday.

Stevan Ridley

Ridley, the bigger of the two backs at 5-11, 220 pounds, is having a breakout year. The early-down specialist rushed for 1,263 yards with 12 touchdowns during the regular season and added 82 rushing yards with another score on the ground Sunday.

Stevan Ridley When Team Has Lead
2nd Half of Games in Regular Season

Ridley is at his best when asked to help the Patriots wind the clock with a lead. As the chart shows, no running back was better than Ridley in the second half with his team protecting a lead.

Picking up yards after contact is something he does regardless of the score. On Sunday alone, Ridley picked up three first downs when he was contacted before the first down-marker. His 38 first downs on plays where he was hit short of the markers was good for third in the NFL behind only Adrian Peterson and Alfred Morris.

Shane Vereen

As linebacker Barrett Ruud and the Texans found out Sunday, Vereen can be a playmaker in the passing game and a great complement to Ridley.

In the fourth quarter of that game, Vereen lined up wide to the left, faked an inside move and reeled in a pefect sideline throw from Brady for a 33-yard touchdown. The play might have caught the Texans off guard but it was nothing new for the young running back. In college at Cal, Vereen ran the same route down the left sideline against the Andrew Luck-led Stanford Cardinal back in 2008 for a 59-yard touchdown.

Shane Vereen

VereenVereen has now hauled in 13-of-16 targets this season. Despite an average target depth of just 4.9 yards downfield, Vereen turned those 13 receptions into 232 yards, thanks mostly to an incredible average of 14.4 yards-after-catch per reception.

Vereen’s 17.6 yards-after-catch per reception during the regular season was first among backs with multiple receptions.

The versatility he offers the Patriots in the passing game is something New England hasn’t seen since Kevin Faulk. In fact, Vereen’s touchdown catch against Houston was the first by a Patriots running back while split out wide since Faulk back in October of 2008 against the St. Louis Rams.

Ridley and Vereen complement each other very well and make the already strong Patriot offense that much harder to stop.