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Patriots Running Backs Can Be a Handful

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With the New England Patriots coming to town this weekend to face the Vikings in their home opener at TCF Bank Stadium, there has been plenty of discussion surrounding the Vikings challenge of facing one of the best quarterbacks of all-time – Tom Brady. And rightfully so, as Brady is 3-0 against the Vikings in his career and still has plenty left in the tank.

There's much more for the Vikings defense to focus on when studying the Patriots offense than their future Hall of Fame quarterback. There's Rob Gronkowski, who is working his way back from injury and, when healthy, is one of the most lethal pass-catching weapons in the NFL. There's Julian Edelman, who was Brady's favorite target last season, catching 105 passes for 1,065 yards and six touchdowns.

Yes, defending the Patriots passing attack is a tall task, particularly with Brady's calm and cool demeanor in the pocket and ability to be razor sharp when it matters most. But the Patriots offensive strategy isn't as pass-heavy as one might think. While New England did throw 56 passes compared to just 20 runs last week, don't forget that the Patriots were ninth in rushing attempts and yards last season, and they were tied for second in rushing touchdowns with 19.

New England's two primary running backs are No. 22 Stevan Ridley and No. 34 Shane Vereen. While they play the same position, they contribute in different ways.

Ridley has been New England's top ball-carrier since 2012, averaging 4.3 yards per rush with 22 touchdowns on the ground during that span. He's a tricky back to figure because the Patriots run him left most frequently (233 attempts) but his per-carry average is superior running right (4.6 yards per carry).

Adding complexity to it is Vereen, a running back who does his best work in the passing game. Vereen has far fewer carries the past two-plus seasons (133 attempts compared to 528 for Ridley) but he has 74 receptions compared to 18 for Ridley over the same span. In fact, Vereen was third on the Patriots in receptions last season with 47, more than Gronkowski (39) and young, up-and-coming receivers Aaron Dobson (37) and Kenbrell Thompkins (32).

In total last season, Ridley and Vereen combined for 1,470 yards from scrimmage, which represented 22.9% of New England's output, and they accounted for 25% of the Patriots offensive touchdowns. Last week, Ridley led the Patriots in rushing attempts with eight while Vereen was right behind him with seven attempts. As one would expect, the order of preference switched in the passing game, with Vereen hauling in five receptions on eight targets and Ridley collecting two catches on two targets.

Interestingly enough, Vikings Head Coach Mike Zimmer, who was the Cincinnati Bengals Defensive Coordinator last season, faced the Patriots in Week 6. But that game can't be used as a tool to forecast what may happen this Sunday because neither Ridley nor Vereen played in the game. They are both expected to play this Sunday, though, and you can be sure the Vikings will be keeping a close eye on both.

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