FOXBOROUGH, Mass. – Stevan Ridley and Shane Vereen stood almost back to back, separated only by a group of media members that surrounded both.
Standing in front of their lockers located next to each other in the New England Patriots’ locker room Wednesday, they laughed, smiled and talked about the journey that brought them to this place.
It’s been different for each of them since the Patriots selected them 17 picks apart in the 2011 draft. Ridley, a third-round pick from Louisiana State (73rd overall), emerged this year as the Patriots’ primary back, rushing for a team-high 1,263 yards and 12 touchdowns in the regular season. Vereen, a second-round pick from California (56th overall), has battled injuries and bided his time, waiting for a chance to shine.
It came Sunday, when Vereen scored three touchdowns in a 41-28 playoff win over the Houston Texans, a game in which Ridley rushed for a team-high 82 yards and scored a touchdown.
They’ll need that kind of production again Sunday if the Patriots are going to beat the Baltimore Ravens in the AFC final at Gillette Stadium.
The Ravens play quarterback Tom Brady tougher than anyone — in nine career games against Baltimore, Brady has seven touchdown passes and eight interceptions — and he needs a balanced running game to take off some pressure.
“We have a lot of faith in those guys,” said Logan Mankins, the Patriots’ left guard.
They should, said Ravens Coach John Harbaugh. “All those guys are north-south runners,” he said. “They explode through the line, they pick up yards very quickly, they can 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.”
Patriots Coach Bill Belichick has rotated his backs effectively all season. While Ridley had more carries (290) than all other backs combined, Danny Woodhead and Vereen filled specific roles. Both were effective out of the backfield on pass plays. Both averaged 4.0 yards per carry.
“Each back has something new that they bring to the table,” said Vereen. “Each one of us is special in a certain way.”
When Woodhead went down Sunday with a thumb injury on the first play (his status for the title game is uncertain), Vereen responded. He became only the third player in NFL history to score on two touchdown passes and a touchdown run in the same playoff game, joining Roger Craig and Ricky Watters.
“We see it in practice,” said tight end Michael Hoomanawanui of Vereen’s talent. “We know what type of player he is, what type of player he can be.”
Ridley was happy for Vereen.
“I’ll say this, for Shane it’s been a long year,” said Ridley. “And for him to step up in the playoffs in the biggest game of the year, what more could you ask for from a teammate, how much happier can you be for a guy that a lot of people counted out, that a lot of people said they didn’t know he could play?
“We know that. Shane is no secret to us. Other people may have looked over him but we haven’t.”
Vereen downplayed his contributions after the game Sunday and continued to dismiss them Wednesday.
“That’s what you’re expected to do here,” he said. “When you’re called on, you do your job.”
But he did admit it was a lot more satisfying than his rookie year, when he appeared in only five games, getting only 15 carries, and was inactive for every Patriots playoff game.
“It was kind of devastating and heartbreaking to not be out there with the team in a big game,” he said. “This year I’m able to contribute and I hope to help the team in the best way that I can.”
Brady spoke the other day about the “lowlight film” that Belichick breaks out occasionally to point out players’ mistakes in practice.
“You don’t want to be on that film,” said Vereen. “I’ve been exposed many times.”
But he said it’s been very helpful.
“It’s a learning tool we use,” he said. “It’s coaching. You’ve got to take it to heart, and you’ve got to learn from it and you’ve got to get better.”
It’s that type of coaching, he said, that has helped him stay focused even when he wasn’t playing.
“They push us,” he said. “Starting back in the (offseason team activities) they push every one of us, expecting us to be good players for them.”
That, said Ridley, is what playing for the Patriots is all about.
“That’s what I’ve said about this room all year,” he said. “It’s a bunch of young guys who love to play ball and are waiting for their opportunity. (Vereen) got his opportunity and he went out and made the most of it. That’s what you do. That’s the only way you stay around New England, you produce.”
Staff Writer Mike Lowe can be contacted at 791-6422 or at: