By Tom E. Curran
FOXBORO - Screens. Screens, screens, screens. They run them in the walkthrough, run them in the team work, the Patriots even run them after practice. At least they did on Monday, rep after rep against air until the final horn sounded and the players were released.
For several minutes, the team's running backs - all of them pass-catchers during that screen session - stood in a tight circle around position coach Ivan Fears. They appeared to listen closely. Then they adjourned.
The group of backs - primarily Stevan Ridley, Shane Vereen, Danny Woodhead and Brandon Bolden - will all have a role on this team it appears. But the work won't be evenly distributed, as we pointed out earlier.
Ridley considered the climate of the race after practice.
"We better each other," he explained. "It's two backs in there that are (good). Then you have (third-down back) Danny Woody and (undrafted rookie Brandon) Bolden. There's four of us in there battling trying to get every play that we can. The thing is, we all do different things differently. And for us, it's just learning from the next guy. One of our weakness is, is another one's strength. If we can watch each other and learn from each other, we can all become complete backs. But it's gonna take a joint effort. I think that's something that this group and this running back's room is willing to do. It's not just one of us going out there and get the shine. It's all of us going out there to better this unit and better this team."
Because of the skill of the quarterback and the fact the Patriots have such coaching continuity the have a true offensive "system" that's ingrained, each player will have a specific role suited to him.
"Coach Bill (Belichick) and (offensive coodinator) Josh (McDaniels) they do an awesome job - and even Tom (Brady) - of just setting the play up for us," Ridley pointed out. "When they call our number, they know what we can do, they know what our strengths and weaknesses are. We just have to go out there and play.
"For us, it's a fun offense to play in because they put you in situations to be successful," added Ridley. "Each back has differences and they know our differences and they put us in those roles. All we have to do is come out here and work hard and do my job when they call my number. I think I can handle that."
As for the screens, which are a staple of McDaniels' offense and something the Patriots used less in 2011, Ridley said, "We're gonna run 'em and Josh likes to practice 'em. We're gonna run 'em until we get it perfect. We're hitting it every day. It's a different shape, different form, different way but it's the same play day after day."
The action of a screen, in some ways, mirrors the running back competition. Every player involved has a role. And it works best when each player understands and executes his role specifically.
"You have to have everybody on the same page," said Ridley. "The running back has to be in sync with the quarterback, the quarterback has to be in sync with the linemen. It's a group effort on that play just like the game of football."