Ridley looks to protect ball as role increases on Patriots

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Ridley looks to protect ball as role increases on Patriots

FOXBORO -- Stevan Ridley fumbled in Week 17 against the Bills. He did it in his next game too, an AFC Divisional playoff against the Broncos.

Take a seat, rookie.

Ridley never saw action again after fumbling that short Brady pass in the red zone in a third-quarter drive that saw the Patriots looking to go up 49-7 on the Broncos.

Nobody was surprised -- especially not Ridley himself.

"The ball can't be on the ground man, that's no secret," Ridley said Wednesday after Patriots-Saints practice concluded. "Fumbles will have you on the bench and nobody had to tell me that. That's kind of been a rule that I've had since I was young, that's nothing new to me. But this year we're going to try to go and do the best that I can. I have to try to keep the ball high and tight and I know that if I can keep the ball in my hands then I'll be on the field, so I have my work cut out for me."

The work started immediately after the Super Bowl -- a game that Ridley watched in uniform from the sidelines. Not being able to go out there and help his team was added fuel for Ridley's offseason workouts.

"Of course, man, of course," he said of using it as motivation. "Nobody likes to ride the pine, but you know you have to pay your dues and when you make a mistake you have to man up to it and just make sure you don't make the same mistakes."

The Patriots had BenJarvus Green-Ellis (who hasn't fumbled once in college or the NFL -- and allegedly not in high school either) last season, so benching Ridley wasn't a big deal. But this year? They don't have that luxury. Ridley looks to to be the favorite to win the Patriots No. 1 running back spot, and with that comes a lot more responsibility for the second-year back.

"This year you're kind of forced to grow up fast," he said. "You have to take the role that they give you, you have to perfect that and try to be really mistake-free. So for me, coming into this year it's just having a focus. A little bit more focus. Toning a few things down, putting in a little bit of extra time, taking care of your body. Coming out here on the field and being sound with what exactly you have to do with your assignments and things of that nature. So that's really how I'm going to try to best prepare myself for the upcoming season."

Ridley and Brady connected on a few passes under coverage on Wednesday, but just being out on the field with the first team for the majority of the day is the biggest difference from Year 1 to Year 2 for Ridley. You can bank on last year's 87 carries to increase.

"It's more reps man. I'm a little more comfortable out there," he said. "Am I perfect? Not by any means. I still have a lot of work to do. I'm just looking at how over time my carries and things have increased, my reps on the field have increased, but it's still a long way to go and there's still a long way to go."

Having played at LSU, the preseason game against the hometown Saints on Thursday night will surely add a little more meaning to an already meaningful game.

"Very excited about it, it's a big stage," Ridley said. "It's going to be very exciting to go out there and play against the Saints, especially coming from Louisiana, and we're up here working hard just like they are. It's the first game tomorrow, family is coming in. It's going to be a big-time atmosphere and I'm looking forward to it a lot."

But he isn't assuming anything, knowing there's still plenty of time left in camp.

"For me, nothing is written in stone," he said. "Nobody is the starter just yet. I'm just going out there and trying to make the most of the opportunities the coaches give me."

Hold on to that ball, kid, and you'll get plenty of them.

Belichick impressed by rookie Thuney's work at left guard

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Belichick impressed by rookie Thuney's work at left guard

FOXBORO -- Joe Thuney may not have won the starting left guard job officially, but Bill Belichick says he's on the right track. And for a rookie, that's feat in and of itself.

The third-round pick out of North Carolina State -- you may remember it as the Kevin-Faulk-in-the-No.-12-jersey selection -- has been the first-team left guard since the start of training camp, and he hasn't moved since. Thuney has occasionally taken snaps at center, and the Patriots have him learning multiple spots behind the scenes. But every time Nate Solder has run on to the field as the left tackle, Thuney has been there by his side at guard. 

Even going back to OTAs, held not long after he was drafted, Thuney was the top choice at that position. 

"Joe has done a good job with what we’ve given him," Belichick said. "There was a point where we felt comfortable making that, I’d say temporary move, It wasn’t permanent. But he has handled it well. I think he’s certainly moving towards being able to lock something down at some point. I don’t think we’re there yet, but I think he is certainly gaining on it. He has had a good preseason, had a good spring."

What once may have been deemed a temporary move back in the spring -- perhaps due to players like Shaq Mason, Tre' Jackson and Josh Kline dealing with injuries early in the offseason -- now seems like it should be a permanent one.

Thuney's run as the No. 1 left guard has been uninterrupted because his performance hasn't warranted a change. He's held his own against former first-round defensive tackle Malcom Brown in one-on-one practice drills, and he's been the highest-graded player on the Patriots offensive line through two preseason games, per Pro Football Focus. (The only players with higher grades on the team through two games are tight end AJ Derby and defensive end Trey Flowers.)

The man who went viral before the draft for his ability to solve a Rubik's cube in just over a minute has flashed an understanding of how quickly things move on the inside. Plus, playing under unretired offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia, Thuney has been quick himself, both picking up pressures and working to the second level in the running game with aplomb.

Thuney will still have a preseason game or two to solidify his grasp on a starting role, but even for the brief period during which Mason and Kline were simultaneously healthy, Thuney was the choice on the left side of the interior offensive line. Now that Mason is dealing with what's been reported as a hand injury, Jackson remains on PUP, and Jonathan Cooper is still out after suffering a foot injury early in camp, the job seems like Thuney's to lose.

That Belichick even hinted Thuney is "gaining on it" is an indication of just how impressive he's been during his short time as a pro.