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Bye-week breakdown: Defensive backs 11.12.13 at 7:30 am ET
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When healthy, Aqib Talib has been a transformative part of the New England pass defense. (AP)

When healthy, Aqib Talib has been a transformative part of the New England pass defense. (AP)

With the Patriots off this weekend, we’ve got our Bye-Week Breakdown, a position-by-position look at the team. We kicked things off with a look at special teams and offense. We focused on the defensive line and the linebackers — now, with the team set to take the practice field again Tuesday,we wrap things up with the defensive backs.

Overview: The most consistent part of the defense over the first nine games, the secondary has exceeded expectations all season long. Sure, a sizable portion of that has been thanks to the work of cornerback Aqib Talib — when he’s been healthy, he’s deserved a spot in the conversation for Defensive Player of the Year. At the other corner spots, there’s rapidly improving rookie Logan Ryan, who has pushed Kyle Arrington and Alfonzo Dennard for playing time. (For what it’s worth, Arrington has had an excellent first half, while Dennard has assumed his usual role as the No. 2 corner opposite Talib.) At safety, Devin McCourty is playing at a Pro Bowl level and could be one of the only players in franchise history to make it to Hawaii via two different positions. Meanwhile, Steve Gregory is having a sneaky good year of his own.

But above all others, it’s been Talib who has been the transformative presence. Like Rob Gronkowski (and Tom Brady), he is an elite player at his position, and someone who the Patriots will rely on heavily down the stretch and into the playoffs. If he can continue to be the high level corner he was over the first half of the season, there’s every reason to think New England will have one of the best pass defenses in the AFC.

Depth chart: Cornerbacks Aqib Talib (17 tackles, four interceptions, nine passes defensed), Alfonzo Dennard (34 tackles, one interception, seven passes defensed), Kyle Arrington (33 tackles, one interception, seven passes defensed), Logan Ryan (20 tackles, 1.5 sacks, one interception), Marquice Cole (one interception); safeties Devin McCourty (52 tackles, one interception, six passes defensed), Steve Gregory (53 tackles, two passes defensed), Duron Harmon (nine tackles, two interceptions), Tavon Wilson, Nate Ebner.

Best moment: It’s tough to choose from Talib’s Greatest Hits — the Falcons and Saints are likely his two best this season — but we’ll take the performance against Atlanta for two reasons: one, his pass breakup at the end of the contest fundamentally saved the win for the Patriots. And two, his reaction after the play was made. It’s been a long time since we’ve seen a New England cornerback look that confident in his play — when it comes to pass defense, that’s a good thing.

Worst moment: Two jump off the page: One (and the first is more of a team defense breakdown than anything), in the Oct. 20 loss to the Jets, there was a breakdown in containment when New York QB Geno Smith scrambled free in the red zone, and he was able to shake Cole near the goal line and plunge in for the touchdown. Two, the sight of Talib leaving the win over New Orleans with a hip injury has to be disconcerting — so much of the success of the defense is tied up in having Talib on the field.

By the numbers: 52.5 yards per game. The difference in passing yards allowed through nine games in 2012 vs. nine games in 2013. The Patriots preach team defense more than just about anyone, but it’s hard not to look at the this year’s pass defense numbers against last season and not credit the work of the secondary. Through nine games in 2013, the Patriots have yielded an average of 232.8 passing yards per game (13th in the league). Through nine games last year, New England was allowing an average of 285.3 passing yards per game (29th in the NFL).

(Of course, the flip side — and there’s always a flip side — to all of this is that through nine games last season, the Patriots were one of the best teams in the league at stopping the run, allowing an average of 96.8 rushing yards per game, good for ninth in the league. This year? It’s 128.2, which was 30th in the league going into this weekend’s action.)

Money quote: “I think Aqib is a little bit different than some of the players that I’ve coached. There are some similarities to Ty [Law], but I think they’re two different players. They’re both good, both perimeter corners but I see them as having different skill sets. But maybe Ty would be similar in that he was a good corner and you could put him on a lot of players and not maybe feel like you need to give him a lot of help. I think Talib is a guy that we have a lot of confidence in and probably would treat his matchups a little bit differently than we’ve treated some other ones in the past – [former New York Jets cornerback] Aaron Glenn, but again, he’s about as different a player physically as you could get from Aqib but he also was a guy that could go out and cover a lot of receivers without a lot of help.” — Bill Belichick on Talib, Nov. 11.

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Bye-week breakdown: Linebackers 11.11.13 at 9:32 pm ET
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Dont'a Hightower

Dont’a Hightower

With the Patriots off this weekend, we’ve got our Bye-Week Breakdown, a position-by-position look at the team. We kicked things off with a look at special teams and offense. We opened on the defensive side of the ball with the defensive line — now, it’s the linebackers.

Overview: For the Patriots, the entire linebacking picture changed when Jerod Mayo went down with a season-ending pectoral injury in an October win over the Saints. The veteran wasn’t necessarily an elite linebacker across the board, but he did so many things really well: run defense, pass defense, communication, leadership. In the weeks since Mayo went on season-ending injured reserve, it’s been a work in progress as New England tries to find the right combination when it comes to defending the run as well as the pass.

Dont’a Hightower has certainly taken steps in the right direction over the last year-plus; however, he might not be at the level where he can step into Mayo’s role immediately. (Few people can — Mayo was in his sixth season as a professional, while Hightower just began his second.) That being said, Hightower played well in Mayo’s absence. Meanwhile, Brandon Spikes remains an elite run-stopper, while the Dane Fletcher-Jamie Collins combo is progressing nicely. And youngsters Steve Beauharnais and Chris White have provided depth and special teams value over the first half of the season.

(One thing that has been noticeable over the last few weeks — when the Patriots have moved from their four-man front to a three-man front with four linebackers, Rob Ninkovich has been a stand-up, edge-of-the-line guy. In other words, an outside linebacker. Ninkovich hinted at the fact that he had an expanded role since Mayo and Wilfork had gone down, so it’s no surprise to see him standing up on occasion at his old linebacker spot. That’s not to suggest it’ll be a permanent thing, but instead, another indication the Patriots value players — defensive hybrids, really — who can fill multiple spots. Especially when they need help after losing Pro Bowlers in Mayo and Wilfork.)

As the urgency starts to increase and the most important stretch of the season looms, more will be asked of the linebacking crew as the defense looks to stay consistent down the stretch. Without Mayo, it will be a tall order — whether or not the group is up to the challenge will go a long way toward determining the ultimate legacy of the 2013 defense.

Depth chart: Dont’a Hightower (69 tackles, one sack), Brandon Spikes (84 tackles, one interception), Jamie Collins (11 tackles), Dane Fletcher (six tackles, two sacks), Steve Beauharnais, Chris White.

Best moment: Led in large part by the linebackers, New England was able to do a terrific job disguising its looks in the second half of the win over the Dolphins. That was the spark for six second-half sacks for the Patriots.

Worst moment: The loss of Mayo against the Saints.

By the numbers: 22. Spikes had a career-high with 22 total tackles at Cincinnati on Oct. 6. His previous best was 16 tackles at the Jets on Nov. 22, 2012. It is the highest tackle total for a Patriots player since Mayo had 23 total tackles vs. the New York Jets on Nov. 13, 2008. Spikes has four games so far in 2013 with 10 or more tackles – 10 vs. Tampa Bay, 22 at Cincinnati, 17 at Jets and 12 vs. Miami.

Money quote: “I just come out and have a good time on Sundays. I don’t really pay attention to stuff I can’t control — it is what it is,” he said. “I just feel fortunate to be able to play this game. I just want to make the best of it. There’s a small margin in the time you get to play, and why not just go have fun? That’s all I just base it on — going to have fun. Being happy and playing the game I love.” — Spikes, Oct. 11.

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Bye-week breakdown: Defensive line at 12:57 pm ET
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Chandler Jones has played a big role in the Patriots pass rush this season. (AP)

Chandler Jones has played a big role in the Patriots pass rush this season. (AP)

With the Patriots off this weekend, we’ve got our Bye-Week Breakdown, a position-by-position look at the team. We kicked things off with a look at special teams and offense. We open on the defensive side of the ball with the defensive line.

Overview: At the start of the season, the one rock-solid defensive position for the Patriots was defensive line. Vince Wilfork and Rob Ninkovich were bedrocks for New England, while Chandler Jones flashed positively enough at times as a rookie to be considered a Defensive Rookie of the Year candidate, and new defensive tackle Tommy Kelly was so enthused about the idea of playing on a team that had a chance to just finish above .500, he told anyone who would listen he was simply happy to be in New England.

Fast forward to November, and no position has undergone more drastic personnel changes than the Patriots front four. Wilfork and Kelly are done for the year, the victims of season-ending injuries (Wilfork suffered an Achilles’ injury, while Kelly injured his knee). In their place, the Patriots have turned to rookies Joe Vellano and Chris Jones. The two have played about as well as could be expected — both have held up well when it comes to working as pass rushers (Jones in particular has shown a nice ability to get after the passer with five sacks through nine games), but have struggled at times against the run — New England’s numbers against the run have taken a sizable hit with Wilfork out of the middle, as they have gone from 105 rushing yards per game allowed (13th in the league) after four weeks to 128.2 rushing yards per game (30th) entering the bye week.

To help bolster the front four, two veteran faces were added to the mix: New England swung a deadline deal for defensive tackle Isaac Sopoaga, a former Eagle who is known for his stoutness against the run. The Patriots also reacquired pass-rush specialist Andre Carter to provide depth at defensive end. Last weekend against the Steelers, both appeared to hold up well, and both figure to be a sizable part of the mix going forward.

While the group as a whole isn’t necessarily the rock-solid position that many thought it was at the start of 2013, the continued high level of play from Ninkovich and Chandler Jones, as well as the infusion of talent from Chris Jones, Michael Buchanan and Sopoaga and the veteran leadership of Carter, it’s in good shape to this point. An increased focus on stopping the run will serve them better down the stretch.

Depth chart: Defensive ends Rob Ninkovich (46 tackles, three sacks, two forced fumbles), Chandler Jones (53 tackles, 8.5 sacks), Andre Carter (two tackles, one sack), Michael Buchanan (two tackles, two sacks) and Jake Bequette; defensive tackles Chris Jones (29 tackles, five sacks), Joe Vellano (33 tackles, one sack), Marcus Forston, Isaac Sopoaga (Wilfork and Kelly on season-ending injured reserve).

Best moment: Late in the Patriots 30-27 win over the Saints, New Orleans quarterback Drew Brees attempted to pick up a few extra yards with a naked bootleg, but he was met by Chandler Jones, who tripped up Brees for a 5-yard loss. It was a relatively simply play, but Jones later acknowledged that Ninkovich tipped him off to the fact that the play might be coming. It’s impressive on two levels: one, it speaks to the level of film study that Ninkovich engages in every week. (That’s not to suggest that every player doesn’t do it — just that it rarely pays off in such a timely fashion.) And two, is displays a level of communication between two teammates that can’t be faked — it takes time to be able to acquire that level of trust, and it’s clear that Jones and Ninkovich have arrived at that point.

Worst moment: The losses of Wilfork and Kelly on back-to-back weeks. Wilfork went down with his season-ending Achilles injury in a Week 3 win over the Falcons, while Kelly was lost for the year the following week in a loss to the Bengals in Cincinnati.

By the numbers: Chris Jones has five sacks through the first nine games of the season. That’s more sacks than Osi Umenyiora, Ndamukong Suh, Brian Orakpo, Jared Odrick or Clay Matthews. Jones, a 6-foot-2, 302-pounder out of Bowling Green, was a sixth-round pick of the Texans this past spring, but cut loose in the spring. After a cup of coffee with the Bucs, he was claimed off waivers by the Patriots, and has been one of the unsung heroes of the 2013 defense to this point in the season.

Money quote: “You just don’t replace Vince Wilfork. We’ll still have his presence around the team and in the locker room and those types of things, which he’s great at. On the field, we’ll miss him, but whoever is out there, those other 11 guys that are out there, we’re all going to have to pull a little bit harder, including the coaching staff and all that. It’s a big loss, but we’re just going to have to find a way to do it. That means everybody doing their job. Obviously somebody is going to have to replace him and whoever those people are, they’re going to have to answer the bell. But collectively as a team, we’re all going to have to pull together. There’s no one person that can replace Vince Wilfork.” — Coach Bill Belichick on the loss of Wilfork, Oct. 2.

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Bye-week breakdown: Offensive line at 7:15 am ET
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Logan Mankins

Logan Mankins

With the Patriots off this weekend, we’ve got our Bye-Week Breakdown, a position-by-position look at the team. We kicked things off with a look at the special teamers, wide receivers, running backs, tight ends and quarterback. We finish off the offense with the offensive line.

Overview: Over the first nine games, the New England offensive line has faced some of the best defensive fronts in the league — the Jets and Bengals have eaten up good offenses, and stymied the Patriots as well. And there are plenty of times where the group has looked truly elite — if you put a stopwatch on quarterback Tom Brady while he’s been in the pocket, he’s had five-plus seconds to deliver the ball, which should be enough to find a target and properly execute the play

At the same time, it’s clear that something is not right with this group. Whether it’s injuries, personnel, scheme or opponent, there have been times where they’ve struggled as a group. They hold themselves to an almost impossibly high standard, and so they will be the first to tell you their performance hasn’t been enough over the first nine games of the season. A few days after an ugly Oct. 20 loss to the Jets, left guard Logan Mankins acknowledged they have been some problems up front.

“It’s not all on us, but there’s enough of it on us,” he said when talking about the struggles of the offense and the offensive line. “A perfect example is the other [afternoon]. Come out in third quarter, sack, sack. A lot of that was on us. Mental assignments. Guys just getting beat. Whenever the line’s not playing good, it’s hard to score for us.

“We expect a lot out of ourselves and I think that’s why we were disappointed after the game the other night. We thought we played good until the end of the second half there. Third quarter was bad, and then I think we played better in the fourth. But we had that lull right there in the third quarter that hurt us and hurt the team. We can’t just play like that.”

Despite the fact that the line is missing right tackle Sebastian Vollmer for the rest of the season, given the history of offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia and the majority of players currently in place — particularly Mankins and left tackle Nate Solder — there’s no reason to think that this group won’t be able to eventually diagnose the issues it currently faces and get things turned around between now and the end of the season. (It should get a boost from the return of tight end Rob Gronkowski to something close to full health — he’s universally accorded as one of the best blocking tight ends in the league.) While much is made of the turnover at the skill positions and the fact that they have had to learn how to play together as a group, the offensive line is just as important to the success of the Patriots down the stretch and into the postseason.

Depth chart: Left tackle Nate Solder, left guard Logan Mankins, center Ryan Wendell, right guard Dan Connolly, right tackle Marcus Cannon, right tackle Sebastian Vollmer, tackle Will Svitek, Chris Barker, Josh Kline.

Best moment: The line was dominant in a September win over the Falcons, helping control the tempo and being physical with the Atlanta defensive front. In addition, it’s been mentioned several times before for several other offensive positions, but the game against the Steelers was another good afternoon for the group.

Worst moment: At the start of the second half in the Oct. 20 loss to the Jets, the first six offensive plays for the Patriots went as follows: sack/interception/four-gain gain/five-yard gain/no gain/sack. By the end of the quarter, a 21-10 lead turned into a 27-21 deficit. By Mankins’ own admission, it went south at the start of the third, thanks in large part to breakdowns along the offensive line.

By the numbers: In nine games, Brady has been sacked 26 times. He was sacked 27 times in all of 2012 and 32 times in 2011. He’s on pace to be sacked 46 times, which is a career-high.

Money quote: “I think that, yes we have given up more sacks at this point than we did all last season. Believe me, I understand that. So, what is it? I think that I probably have to do a better job coaching and getting them to do things better. I think our players are working at it very hard … and you know, sacks are a byproduct of a lot of different things. So, I’ll pretty much just leave it at that and hopefully, as we’ve said, we’re going to try and [be] better doing the things that we’re doing going forward.” — Dante Scarnecchia, Nov. 5.

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Bye-week breakdown: Quarterback 11.09.13 at 7:30 am ET
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Tom Brady added to his resume of late-game comebacks with wins over the Bills and Saints earlier this year. (AP)

Tom Brady added to his resume of late-game comebacks with wins over the Bills and Saints earlier this year. (AP)

With the Patriots off this weekend, we’ve got our Bye-Week Breakdown, a position-by-position look at the team to this point in the season. We kicked things off with a look at the special teamers, wide receivers, running backs and tight ends. Now, it’s the quarterback.

Overview: In many ways, it has been the most difficult season of Tom Brady‘s career. Now 36 and stripped of many of the essential elements that made him an MVP, he’s helped create the best of an occasionally bad situation on the way to a 7-2 start and the No. 2 playoff seed in the AFC. He was able to pull out wins worth fourth-quarter drives against the Bills and Saints, and engineered a series at the end of regulation against the Jets that forced overtime.

That’s not to say he’s always been the Brady of old — he’s missed several throws over the first nine games. He’s completed less than 60 percent of his passes (he’s never finished at less than 60 percent for the season), his streak of games with a touchdown pass was snapped at 52 in a loss to the Bengals, and he’s has had three games in which he’s thrown for less than 190 yards. In addition, the occasional sideline fits of Marinoesque rage directed toward his younger receivers came off as small and immature. (Considering what was surrounded with, there were moments where you couldn’t blame him. Imprecise routes and dropped passes are a relatively new problem to adjust to, especially for a veteran quarterback who has won multiple Super Bowls.)

However, if last weekend is any indication, things have started to turn for Brady and the offense. The sideline outbursts have subsided, the drops have decreased and with the return of Rob Gronkowski, the offense appears to have (at least for now) righted itself. Surrounded by 95 percent of his elite offensive options (everyone except Shane Vereen, really), the quarterback had a thunderous 432-yard passing performance last Sunday against the Steelers.

As we have written on multiple occasions, there’s a growing sense that this team mirrors the 2006 group in that there’s a lot of new talent, but it’s taken some time for the passing game to come together. That team found its rhythm roughly around the halfway point, and would go on to finish 12-4 and make it all the way to the AFC title game. If Brady can somehow will the offense to a similar finish — or even better — it could go down as the most impressive season of his career for several reasons, including the fact that he would be just the fifth quarterback of all time to win a Super Bowls after his 35th birthday: Johnny Unitas was 37 when he led the Colts to a win in Super Bowl V; Roger Staubach was 35 when the Cowboys won Super Bowl XII; a 36-year-old Jim Plunkett led the Raiders to victory in Super Bowl XVIII; and John Elway was 37 and 38 when he led the Broncos to Super Bowl XXXII and XXXIII. Pretty good company.

Depth chart: Brady (194-for-340, 57 percent, 2,256 yards, 13 TDs, 6 INTs), Ryan Mallett.

Best moment: In terms of best singular moment, you can’t overlook the fourth-quarter comeback against the Saints, where he was pretty bad for the better part of the afternoon, but managed to wake up the echoes late in the day and lead a game-winning drive almost 12 years after doing it for the first time as a pro in 2001. But the start-to-finish performance against the Steelers — 23-for-33, 432 yards, 4 TDs — was vintage Brady. If you’re looking for a complete game, might be as close as you’re going to get this season.

Worst moment: The loss to the Bengals in Cincinnati was one of the worst of recent memory: he finished 18-for-38 for a season-low 47 percent completion rate, didn’t throw a touchdown pass for the first time in 53 straight games, was sacked four times and with the game on the line in the fourth quarter and a chance to tie, misfired on the final drive of the afternoon.

By the numbers: 38. The number of times Brady has led his team to victory following a fourth-quarter deficit or tie, including two times in 2013 when he led the team to a win at Buffalo and vs. New Orleans.

Money quote: “In my opinion, [it’s] by far the most impressive performance in any season that Tom has had. I know the numbers are not Tom Brady-like numbers. But based on the situation, the cast around him, the fact he is more of a player-coach, which is always tough; you’re teaching in the huddle, at the line, getting guys lined up. It is a testament to how good he really is.” — Brett Favre, speaking about Brady on Oct. 20 on NFL Network.

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Bye-week Breakdown: Tight ends 11.08.13 at 9:52 pm ET
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Rob Gronkowski has had a tremendous effect on the offense the last couple of weeks. (AP)

Rob Gronkowski has had a tremendous effect on the offense the last couple of weeks. (AP)

With the Patriots off this weekend, we’ve got our Bye-Week Breakdown, a position-by-position look at the Patriots. We kicked things off with a look at the special teamers, wide receivers and running backs. Now. it’s the tight ends.

Overview: Where to start? There might not be another positional grouping across the league that underwent a more radical change from 2012 to 2013 than the New England tight ends. Aaron Hernandez was released this offseason, and Rob Gronkowski underwent multiple surgeries on his back and forearm. As a result, the Patriots opened the season with Zach Sudfeld, Michael Hoomanawanui and Matthew Mulligan at tight end, with Gronkowski on the roster but not available to play.

While the will-he-or-won’t-he drama played out around Gronkowski for the first month or so, Hoomanawanui assumed the bulk of the playtime, and did well. He certainly wasn’t to provide the offensive oomph of Gronkowski, but he served as a good blocker and dependable set of hands when called upon — he had a pair of big pickups against the Saints, and did well when it came to skating his lane.

When Gronkowski returned in Oct. 20 loss to the Jets, he clearly wasn’t back to 100 percent, but demanded attention pretty much wherever he went. Since then, his influence has escalated, peaking with last Sunday’s outing against the Steelers, where he had nine catches and worked nicely as a receiver and blocker. His work against Pittsburgh, combined with the fact that Stevan Ridley and Danny Amendola were on the field with his for an extended stretch, was a reminder that a healthy Gronkowski is a transformative presence, one who completely changes the face of the New England offense. The only question is whether or not he can stay healthy. If so, and he can continue to ramp up over the course of the second half of the season, there’s no reason to think he shouldn’t be able to finish the season in the neighborhood of 50 catches and play a major role in determining just how deep this team plays into January.

Depth chart: Gronkowski (19 catches, 284 yards, one TD), Hoomanawanui (9 catches, 112 yards), Mulligan (1 catch, 1 yard, 1 TD).

Best moment: In his best performance in almost a full calendar year (his last outing on this level was the win over the Rams in London last October), Gronkowski was a dominant performer against the Steelers. He not only brought the offensive thunder that had been missing from the tight end spot over the first eight games with nine catches (on 10 targets) for 143 yards and a touchdown, he affected the entire offense — he was double-teamed, which opened things up for the rest of the skill position players. And he worked as a blocker, helping pave the way for Ridley to top 100 yards for the first time on the season.

Worst moment: Simply put, there haven’t been a whole lot of bad moments over the season at the tight end spot — without Gronkowski in the lineup, it’s occasionally just been underwhelming. We’ll go with two: one, the drop from Sudfeld in the regular-season opener against the Bills. And two, the missed connections involving Gronkowski in his first game back against the Jets. (One where he lost the ball in the sun, and another where he wasn’t able to haul in a pass that would have almost certainly gone for a touchdown late in regulation.)

By the numbers: (tied) One, In his first game back (Oct. 20 against the Jets) Gronkowski was targeted 17 times by quarterback Tom Brady. To that point in the season — the first six games — the rest of the tight ends as a group had been targeted 15 times. And two, among all the offensive skill position players other than the quarterback, Hoomanawanui is second in most snaps over the course of the first nine games. (Julian Edelman is first at 545, while Hoomanawanui is at 486, per Pro Football Focus.)

Money quote: “He brings a whole lot to the table. He’s productive, and I don’t know how many yards or catches he had, but it was a lot in both categories. He’s a major part of this offense, and as long as we get him going, that will open up a lot of opportunities for other players, [like] opportunities in the run game. He’s a big part of our offense.” — Running back LeGarrette Blount on Gronkowski, Nov. 3 following his performance against the Steelers.

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Bye-week breakdown: Running backs 11.07.13 at 11:05 pm ET
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Stevan Ridley and the Patriots left an impression on the Dolphins. (AP)

Stevan Ridley and the Patriots left an impression on the Dolphins. (AP)

With the Patriots off this weekend, we’ve got our Bye-Week Breakdown, a position-by-position look at the Patriots. We kicked things off with a look at the special teamers and wide receivers. Now, it’s the running backs:

Overview: While there were questions about the state of the Patriots’ wide receivers coming into the season, there were no such concerns about the New England running game. Stevan Ridley rushed for 1,263 yards last season, and despite an occasional ball security issue (that in truth was a tad overblown), appeared to be capable of becoming the first back under Bill Belichick to rush for 1,000-plus yards in back-to-back seasons. Meanwhile, Shane Vereen appeared capable of assuming the mantle of third-down/changeup back, a responsibility that had previously fallen to Danny Woodhead. And Brandon Bolden and LeGarrette Blount were around to provide depth.

Over the first nine games, that’s pretty much been the case, as the Patriots’ running game has been steady and impressive — New England is 5-0 when it hits 100 yards on the ground as a team, and despite the fact that they lost Vereen in Week 1 (after he provided 159 yards from scrimmage against the Bills) to a wrist injury, the running game has held together nicely. Ridley is up over 500 yards, while Blount has worked mostly in relief, while Bolden has worked mostly as a third-down guy in relief of Vereen. The yards per carry is well over 4.0, and they have done a very good job moving the chains. (In fact, you could argue that the two losses were the result of them not running enough — against the Bengals, the Patriots had six carries in the second half, and in the New York loss, they carried the ball just twice over the final seven minutes of regulation, and not at all in overtime.)

That being said, one of the most fascinating relationships on the team is between Bill Belichick and Ridley. Ridley is coming off a season where he ran the ball for more than 1,200 yards — he was only one of 10 guys in the entire league to top the 1,200-mark last year — but through the first nine games, he was often treated like an ancillary part of the offense. He was yanked from the lineup after a fumble in the season opener, and didn’t play for the better part of the first half against the Dolphins despite not showing up on the injury report over the course of the week. But it appears that Belichick and Ridley have apparently engaged in a rapprochement, with the seminal moment coming last weekend against the Steelers where the back immediately returned to the game following a fumble at the hands of Troy Polamalu.

Ultimately, what the first nine games of the season have taught us about the New England running game is that its sneaky good, and with the addition of Vereen, likely to get better. It could ultimately serve as the secret weapon for an offense that’s still finding its legs as Thanksgiving approaches.

Depth chart: Ridley (118 carries, 514 yards, 4.4 yards per carry, six TDs), Blount (70 carries, 312 yards, 4.5 yards per carry, two TDs), Bolden (38 carries, 205 yards, 5.4 yards per carry, two TDs; 17 catches, 107 yards), Vereen (14 carries, 101 yards, 7.2 yards per carry; seven catches, 58 yards), Leon Washington (1 carry, 1 yard), fullback James Develin (2 catches, 19 yards).

Best moment: Ridley has had some impressive moments over the course of the year, but it’s hard to argue with what Vereen produced in the season-opener against the Bills. He averaged 7.57 yards every time he touched the ball, and revealed himself to be a terrific multidimensional threat. He’s not quite Marshall Faulk (a comparison his former college position coach made when he was taken by the Patriots in 2011), but he’s not too far removed.

Worst moment: Vereen got the bulk of his opportunities that afternoon for several reasons, including the fact that Ridley coughed up the ball in the first half and was benched for the rest of the afternoon.

By the numbers: Ridley has 514 rushing yards — he needs 486 yards over the final seven games to become the first running back to rush for 1,000 yards in back-to-back seasons under Belichick. (He needs to average 69.4 yards per game the rest of the way to reach the milestone.)

Money quote: “That was definitely the low point of my night, for sure. [But] for the coaches to stick with me and ride it out, it said a lot. … I hated it. Like I said, it made me sick. But I really think that it motivated me more to go out there and finish the game strong.” — Ridley after fumbling the ball against the Steelers last weekend, but getting the chance to return to the game following the turnover.

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