One thing is certain about the New England Patriots running game.
Stevan Ridley won’t be part of it for a while.
Just who will play an increased role after the Patriots top rusher suffered a serious right knee injury remains a mystery.
Shane Vereen is the primary backup, but his greatest value is as a receiver. Brandon Bolden is a special teamer who rarely plays offense. Rookie James White has been active for one game. Jonas Gray has been on the practice squad all season.
Whoever sees more action won’t face the stiffest competition Thursday night when the Patriots (4-2) play the Jets (1-5).
But New York’s biggest problems have come on offense, not with the NFL’s eighth-ranked run defense.
“I’m confident with all those guys that are out there,” quarterback Tom Brady said Tuesday. “You sit in all the same meetings that all the other guys sit in. You’re getting, maybe not quite as many reps, but you’re being coached the same way.”
The injury comes just as the Patriots offense is rolling. They scored 80 points in the past two games after totaling the same amount in the first four. And Brady is coming off his best game of the season with 361 yards passing and four touchdown passes.
Ridley hurt his right knee in the third quarter of Sunday’s 37-22 win over the Buffalo Bills. He leads the Patriots with 340 yards rushing, has run for more than 100 yards twice this season and his 21 touchdowns on the ground since 2012 lead the AFC.
And he hasn’t lost a fumble after doing that twice in 2012 and four times in 2013.
The Patriots have declared Ridley out for the game but haven’t made a roster move with him or linebacker Jerod Mayo, who was carted off the field in the second quarter Sunday after hurting his right knee.
Ridley appeared distraught while being helped off, but Gray has seen him since then.
“He’s a pretty upbeat guy,” Gray said. “He stays pretty positive about stuff. He’s been through a lot in his career, period, so this is just another setback for a big comeback.”
Bolden was signed as an undrafted free agent before the 2012 season. In his third game as a rookie, he rushed 16 times for 137 yards and a touchdown. But in 28 NFL games, he has just 126 carries for 570 yards.
So can he carry the ball 20 times in a game and still be effective on special teams?
“I’ll have to see if that happens,” Bolden said. “That would be great to hear it, but I’m just going into this game just doing whatever they ask me to do, whether it’s special teams or offense.”
White was drafted in the fourth round after finishing his career with 4,015 yards rushing at Wisconsin, third most in school history. But in his only action this year, late in a 41-14 loss to the Kansas City Chiefs, he ran three times for 21 yards.
“You just have to stay ready at all times,” White said. “You never know when your number’s going to be called. You work hard during practice, continue to show that you’re capable of playing if that opportunity does come.”
Bolden and Gray are closest to the 220-pound Ridley in size.
And while Gray hasn’t been on an active roster yet — spending 2012 on Miami’s physically unable to perform list and 2013 on Baltimore’s practice squad — he attends the same practices and meetings as the rest of the team.
He’s learned from Ridley in the running backs sessions.
“He runs with reckless abandon,” Gray said. “It’s good that we sit right next to each other in the meeting room. So whenever he sees something he asks me a question. He’s like, `What do you think I should have done here?’ and I always ask him (questions). We kind of absorb off each other, so he’s kind of a big brother.”
Now that Ridley’s hurt, Gray says his preparation doesn’t change.
“The staff does a good job of making sure we’re preparing the same way every time,” Gray said. “The guys that aren’t playing the game are getting extra film study, extra work, so for me it’s the same mindset.”
NOTES: CB Brandon Browner expects to make his Patriots debut Thursday night after a four-game suspension for violating the NFL’s substance abuse policy then sitting out the past two games. He was limited in practice Tuesday with an ankle injury but said afterward, “I’m ready to go.”. … LB Dont’a Hightower was limited with a knee injury after missing the past two games but figures to play and take over the defensive signal calling from Mayo.