OWINGS MILLS - Stevan Ridley's the power. Danny Woodhead's the shifty scatback who's also proven to be dangerous as a receiver out of the backfield. And Shane Vereen's a balanced back that, like Ridley, can run between the tackles and, like Woodhead, has shown to be a playmaker as a pass-catcher out of the backfield.
The New England Patriots have a place in their offense for each of their primary three running backs, and each of the three backs brings a different dynamic to the table that the Baltimore Ravens are preparing for heading into Sunday's AFC championship game at Gillette Stadium in Foxborough.
"That probably is the challenge right there," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. "They have really good backs. All of those guys are north-south runners, they explode through the line, they pick up yards very quickly [and] they can all catch the ball out of the backfield really well. Their quarterback does a great job of determining when they're going to run and try to run at some good looks. That's part of what makes that offense so effective."
Ridley's the primary ball-carrier.
The bruising 5-foot-11, 220-pound second-year runner rushed for 1,263 yards and 12 touchdowns during the regular season. The yards were the most for a Patriots running back since Corey Dillon in 2004.
The Ravens limited Ridley to just 37 yards on 13 carries in September, but Ridley had 82 yards and a score on 15 carries amid New England's divisional round win against the Houston Texans last week. He ran for 97 yards or more six times during the regular season, including a season-high 151 yards and a score against a stout Denver Broncos that finished the regular season as the NFL's third-ranked run defense.
But Woodhead and Vereen both have roles as well. The two average a combined 12 touches per game.
Woodhead accounted for 747 yards (301 rushing, 446 receiving) and seven touchdowns (three rushing, four receiving) during the regular season. Vereen totaled just 400 yards (251 rushing, 149 receiving) during the regular season, but he accounted for three touchdowns against the Texans last week. He had 41 yards and a score on eight carries and 83 yards and another two touchdowns on five catches.
"They definitely do it by committee," Baltimore linebacker Brendon Ayanbadejo said of the Patriots' usage of their running backs. "They'll have Ridley in there. You saw Vereen last week. And Woodhead does what he does. All their backs are really talented. ... Everyone talks about Tom Brady so much, but you really have to stop their running game first. First and foremost, we have to stop the run."
That's something the Ravens had difficultly doing at times throughout the season. They surrendered a combined 622 rushing yards during a three-game stretch in October and yielded back-to-back 100-yard rushers in early December. But, despite that, Baltimore finished the regular season tied for fourth-best in the AFC in yards per carry allowed (4.0) and it's limited opposing running backs to just 3.5 yards per carry in two playoff games.
"We respect [New England's] guys," Ravens outside linebacker Paul Kruger said. "They can hurt you if you allow them to, but it's going to come down to us just doing the things that we've been doing. ... We've just got to go out there and make it happen."