FOXBOROUGH, Mass. – Quarterback Tom Brady looks fine. The Patriots’ passing should pick up right where it left off. No worries in that phase of the game across New England.

The running game? Well, that’s a different story.

As is often the case in the Bill Belichick era, the backfield is in a state of flux. Players going. Players coming. You name it. Uncertainty rules the day.

When New England was winning three Super Bowls in four years from 2002-2005, the team featured a power running game that could control the ball for long periods of time late in the game. Antoine Smith wasn’t a Hall of Fame back, but he helped win two titles.

Now, there’s a void. Despite a 13-3 regular season and an AFC championship last year, New England had problems keeping the ball away from opponents at the end of games. A strong, reliable running game would have helped that.

And then came the offseason. That’s when BenJarvus Green-Ellis, the primary back for the past two years, departed for Cincinnati.


What he left behind is a stable of runners, but are any of them going to carry the load?

“We have a group of guys,” second-year tailback Stevan Ridley said, “who are very much capable of that in our room.”

Time will tell. New England will open the preseason Thursday against New Orleans.

“BenJarvus was a great player for us,” Ridley said, “but now the next guy here has got to step up.”

That might just be Ridley. He averaged 5.1 yards per rush in 87 attempts last season and his 33-yard run was the team’s longest of the season. But Belichick lost some confidence in him after fumbles against Buffalo and Denver late in the year.

“For me, I’m not a coach,” Ridley said. “I went out there and played as best I could. Unfortunately, as a running back, you can never put the ball on the ground and that’s something that I know, and that’s been since pee-wee football.”


He intends to keep the ball “high and tight” this season and “not repeat the same mistakes.”

Veteran Danny Woodhead is most effective as a situational runner, usually from a passing formation. He appears to be the next Kevin Faulk as an outlet on third down.

Second-year pro Shane Vereen was injured most of his rookie season, but also has shown promise and can catch the ball out of the backfield.

Undrafted rookie Brandon Bolden of Mississippi also has been getting some reps and could be the same surprise as the undrafted Green-Ellis.

“I think he seems like he’s done a decent job in the areas that we’ve asked him to work in, special teams,” Belichick said. “He can catch the ball, has some skill in the passing game and he had some production in the running game in college. We’ve only seen that in drills, we haven’t seen that really in live competition yet. But based on college, it looked like he can run the ball.”

SAINTS: Sean Payton, the suspended coach, was given permission by the NFL to attend the Hall of Fame induction ceremony Saturday night. Willie Roaf, a former Saints player, will be inducted.

BROWNS: Jimmy Haslam III, the new owner, said he’s ready to bring “winning back to Cleveland” and proclaimed there’s “zero chance” he’ll move the team out of town.

PACKERS: Punter Tim Masthay’s agent said Masthay agreed to a contract extension.

BILLS: General Manager Buddy Nix said free-agent safety Jim Leonhard visited with the team for a second day and took a physical.

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