The New England Patriots have been a battered team for much of the season. Nevertheless, the Pats have staked out to a shiny 7-2 mark, providing them an invaluable cushion as they wait for reinforcements.
Injuries have particularly sabotaged the offense for much of the season, with Tom Brady and Co. mortifying panicked Patriots fans with the unit's inconsistent play. But with Rob Gronkowski and Danny Amendola back in the fold, New England has begun to show signs of recapturing its previously elite form.
Next week against the Panthers, it appears as though the final ingredient may return to the offense. The Patriots have not really replaced passing back Shane Vereen since a broken wrist sidelined the third-year back after Week 1, but according to Pro Football Focus' Mike Clay, Vereen will likely make his return against the Panthers in Week 11:
Following in the footsteps of Kevin Faulk and Danny Woodhead, Vereen figures to inherit the role of New England's primary receiving back. Given New England's penchant for the screen game, that alone makes Vereen a significant asset.
But Vereen is among the Patriots' most athletic and versatile offensive talents, and in limited snaps, he has shown the potential to add an entirely new dimension beyond third-down duties. Personnel limitations have largely kept the Patriots in conventional three-receiver sets, but Gronk's return last week opened up more two-tight end formations.
Vereen's return could allow offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels to get even more creative in unearthing mismatches for Brady to exploit. Here's a look at how the Pats might reincorporate their shifty back, both on the ground and through the air.
In the Run Game
Vereen's ability in the passing game gets more attention, but it's important not to undersell his potential role in the running game. As the Patriots' primary passing back the last two seasons, Danny Woodhead received about five carries a game, a decent amount considering that he only played roughly 25 snaps per game.
Indeed, in the season-opener, Vereen rushed for 101 yards on just 14 carries following Stevan Ridley's benching. He was most dangerous on shotgun draws, a long-time staple of New England's shotgun offense.
On the Patriots' game-winning drive against the Bills, Vereen ripped off a 15-yard run that put the offense firmly within Stephen Gostkowski's field-goal range. But if not for his elusiveness, the Bills might have blown up the play and left New England in a precarious position. The run was designed to go left, with the line pulling in that direction:
However, left guard Logan Mankins and center Ryan Wendell allowed Alex Carrington to slip through the gap, giving him a clear shot at Vereen. Fortunately, Vereen slipped away from Carrington's grasp and found himself with a perfect alley down the field:
The Patriots have had very few explosive runs on the year. Pro Football Focus' Elusive Rating is one statistic that can quantify this. For those interested, the formula is (Missed Tackles Forced) / (Carries + Receptions) * (Yards After Contact Per Attempt * 100).
Take a look how Pats backs have fared in that category, along with yards after contact per attempt and broken tackles. The number in parenthesis is their ranking among all qualified NFL running backs:
|Elusive Stats for Patriots Running Backs|
|Yco/Att||Broken Tackles||Elusive Rating|
|Stevan Ridley||2.13 (27)||15 (17)||28.5 (30)|
|LeGarrette Blount||2.44 (15)||11 (30)||38.4 (22)|
|Brandon Bolden||2.03 (29)||4 (47)||18.4 (41)|
|via Pro Football Focus|
Needless to say, New England could use a change-up in the running game. Vereen's slippery speed-based running style fulfills that exact role. Draws like the one above allow him to start off in open space, where he is difficult to track and tackle.
Of course, Vereen's primary value lies in his versatility, which really comes into play in the next facet.
In the Passing Game
Where to begin here? Vereen is one of the offense's most versatile players, and while he may not be an every-down player in the mold of Gronkowski (or what Aaron Hernandez was), he creates mismatches all over the field. As MassLive.com's Nick Underhill illustrates, that opens up holes throughout the defense:
I envision him bringing an element to the offense that was lost when Aaron Hernandez was released by the team and from society during the summer. Vereen wasn't the Swiss Army knife that Hernandez was for New England, but Vereen did split out wide five times against the Bills and looked comfortable enough to think that we could see more of that moving forward.
That kind of versatility will be big when the Patriots run no-huddle sets. Vereen can line up in the backfield on one play, split out wide on another and then return to his role at running back on another down. But even if he isn't used that way, Vereen provides an immediate upgrade over Brandon Bolden as the third-down back.
Having that kind of security blanket should benefit Brady. It will force defenses to respect Vereen's presence out of the backfield, which should help create some soft spots in the defense.
The most noticeable area of improvement will be the screen game. In Vereen's absence, the Patriots have noticeably gone away from using the running back screen, instead choosing to employ Danny Amendola or Julian Edelman on wide receiver screens. The reason for that adjustment stems from plays like this:
The fake reverse made for a slow-developing play, but look at that huge chunk of real estate in front of Brandon Bolden! Without a dependable receiving back, the Patriots have squandered opportunities like that on multiple occasions.
Excluding Vereen, Patriots running backs have combined for a minus-5.2 grade in the receiving game. For reference, Patriots backs had a plus-4.6 receiving grade in 2012, led by Woodhead's plus-6.5 mark.
Additionally, there has been much brouhaha about Vereen's ability to split out wide. We saw him torch the Texans in the playoffs last year in this method, and he showed similar glimpses in the preseason.
But much of the hype is justified, as there are few backs in the league who can do as much damage out wide as Vereen. Look at how silly he makes safety Da'Norris Searcy look on this stop-and-go route. The result was an incompletion because of a bad overthrow from Brady, but it highlights Vereen's ability as a route-runner:
And as Underhill hinted above, it did open up room for another play later on. On this red-zone play, the Patriots sent Vereen and Julian Edelman on a pair of overlapping crossing routes, with Edelman being the second-level read. Vereen's presence underneath sucks in linebacker Jerry Hughes, giving Brady just enough time to look off Hughes and sneak the ball into Edelman for a touchdown:
Look, let's not overstate things too much—Vereen is not the primary option in this offense, nor will he take the majority of snaps at running back. But what he does offer the Patriots is the ability to ably fulfill multiple roles, a trait that made past offenses great.
That versatility has largely been missing from this year's offense, but with he and Gronkowski back, New England can finally afford to get a bit more creative in its personnel groupings and play-calling. In the preseason, the Patriots experimented with some two-back sets, usually pairing a heavier back with a passing one. New England has actually played some two-back sets in the regular season, but that was with James Develin as a traditional fullback.
Vereen's presence allows the Patriots to put two complementary running backs on the field simultaneously, infusing athleticism and stretching defenses. Fans who have lamented Josh McDaniels' play-calling should realize that McDaniels has worked with a limited tool set. With everyone healthy, he should finally be able to open up more of the Pats' playbook.
Vereen will not put up eye-popping statistics, and there are several players on the Patriots offense who are more critical to the team's overall success. But Vereen provides several direct and ancillary benefits, and his presence should only further propel a rapidly improving New England offense.
*All stats courtesy Pro Football Focus' premium section (subscription required), and all photos courtesy NFL Game Rewind.