Stevan Ridley fought his way to the top of the depth chart to rush for 1,263 yards through the regular season, but it was Shane Vereen who grabbed the glory in the divisional round of this year’s playoffs. Vereen finished with 41 yards rushing and 83 yards receiving, and he totaled three touchdowns—one rushing and two receiving—as the Patriots swept aside the Houston Texans.
With Gronkowski out, the pressure on Tom Brady increases, so both backs will need to establish a presence on the ground and support their quarterback.
Baltimore is one of the only teams that plays Tom Brady well. Although Brady has a 5-2 career record against the Ravens, he has a quarterback rating of 74.1 across those games, This is his worst against any opponent in the league, via Sports Illustrated. The ground game is therefore crucial to a Super Bowl berth, with Ridley and Vereen key components in establishing control of the game.
Both backs have a North-South style that is essential to NFL success, and Vereen’s emergence as a receiving threat has given the Pats an extra wrinkle to their offense.
Vereen has developed his game in the offseason and looks a different player to the one we saw last year. That Vereen looked unsure of himself and struggled for momentum, only getting 15 carries across the five games in which he played. He was inactive for all last year’s playoff games, which he seems to have used as motivation for this season.
ESPN.com highlighted Bill Belichick’s weekly breakdown on Patriots.com, pointing out the success Brady has with Vereen split out wide, creating a mismatch for the quarterback to exploit. With Gronkowski absent, the fact that Brady can still work this type of play is a real bonus for the team.
Tight end Aaron Hernandez remains a threat out of the backfield, but Vereen has epitomized the “next man up” mentality that is so essential if a team wants to make a run at the Super Bowl.
When speaking to CBSSports.com, Vereen outlined his disappointment with not being a part of last year’s playoff picture:
Last year, it was kind of devastating and heart breaking to not be out there with the team in a big game. This year, I am able to contribute and I hope to help the team in the best way that I can.
Both Ridley and Vereen are likely to get a great opportunity to do just that with Gronkowski out of the equation.
With a quarterback as talented as Brady, it seems strange to point out ways in which he can be assisted in order to win the game. Brady is the consummate playoff quarterback, never giving up and never panicking in the face of pressure.
However, if Ridley and Vereen can force the Ravens to respect the run as much as the pass, the Pats will dominate this game and find themselves in yet another Super Bowl.