There was a noticeable spark in the Patriots offense on Monday night. That's because they got their spark plug back: running back Shane Vereen.
After missing the past eight games with a wrist injury, Vereen finally made his return to the field against the Carolina Panthers, and he was one of the positive stories to come out of the team's loss.
He's a threat as a running back, but opponents must account for him in the passing game as well, where his quickness helps him get open against linebackers and his experience as a running back makes him a threat after the catch.
"It was good to have him back," said Patriots coach Bill Belichick, via Patriots.com. "He missed two months of football. I think he'll be better as we go along. He's worked hard, definitely made some plays that helped us in the game. I think he'll improve and get better, like any player will with more reps and more opportunities to practice and play. It's definitely good to have him back out there."
Compared to Belichick's other postgame comments, he might as well have written a short story about Vereen. Instead, let's take a look at how he impacted the offense.
Matchup Nightmare in Passing Game
Vereen is a "scatback" due to his quickness and dangerous abilities in space. He is an elusive runner with the ball in his hands, whether he gets it on a handoff or in the passing game.
The Patriots love to get him matched up on linebackers, and even cornerbacks have trouble guarding him when he splits out wide to run a route.
The 11 personnel grouping consists of one running back, one tight end and three wide receivers. That formation spreads a defense out a bit, but with Vereen on the field, defenses have to respect the run as well.
Several times against the Panthers, Vereen motioned out from the backfield in order to split out wide. Twice, the Patriots got him matched up on linebacker Thomas Davis, who had no chance of matching quickness with Vereen. Brady is the rare kind of cerebral quarterback that can spot such a favorable matchup and knows what to do about it when he does.
On the Patriots first drive of the game, Brady lined up in the shotgun and sent Vereen in motion out of the backfield. In doing so, Davis went out wide to cover Vereen, and Brady already knew that he had the matchup he wanted. He began making calls at the line, checking into the right play to make sure the Patriots could move the chains.
Vereen came back in motion before the snap and was stacked behind wide receiver Aaron Dobson at the snap of the ball. With Dobson running downfield and Vereen running an out-route, there was some space on the outside for a throw toward the sideline.
Brady put the pass where only Vereen could get it, and the running back rewarded his quarterback by digging the pass out of the ground.
Plenty of running backs can contribute as a pass-catcher out of the backfield, but this wasn't just some two-yard dumpoff out of the backfield; this showed the solid route-running ability Vereen brings to the table.
He put it on display again with a 17-yard reception on a route we've become accustomed to seeing Vereen run in his short time in the NFL: a five-yard curl.
Once again, Vereen motioned out of the backfield and drew Davis in coverage on the sideline. Vereen's short-area quickness allowed him to get separation and also to get yards after making the reception.
After hauling in the pass, Vereen turned on the running back inside of him in order to fight through an arm tackle by Davis and another tackling effort by safety Mike Mitchell. He was finally pushed out by linebacker Luke Kuechly, but not before picking up 17 yards on the catch.
If the Patriots can get Vereen matched up on a linebacker, that's a matchup they'll take every time.
He Can Run, Too
Vereen brings versatility in the passing game, but he can run the ball as well. He only had one carry against the Panthers, but against the Bills in Week 1, he took his 14 carries for 101 yards.
The Patriots use him on draw plays out of the shotgun quite a bit. Once again, this gets the defense stretched out, which creates favorable looks for the running game.
On this play, a pair of great blocks by guard Logan Mankins and center Ryan Wendell opened up the middle of the line for Vereen to put his burst to good use.
As a result, he was able to weave his way through the secondary and finish with a 21-yard gain.
He's not known as a great between-the-tackles runner because he's not a typical "bruiser," but he's effective in that role when used appropriately. Finding ways to get him moving forward with blockers in front of him, though, is a recipe for big plays.
His ability to run the ball may become more important if and when starting running back Stevan Ridley fumbles again. Ridley is usually removed from action for a time following such a mistake, and he was benched for almost two quarters on Monday night after fumbling against the Panthers in the first half of the game.
Vereen's impact is felt most strongly on third down—the Patriots are 16-of-30 (53.3 percent) on third down in two games with Vereen in the lineup and 33-of-108 (30.6 percent) when he is out of the lineup.
Five of Vereen's 15 receptions this year have come on third down, and all of them have moved the chains.
"It’s a difficult position because there's blocking, you have to run the ball, you've got to get your blitz pickup, you've got to get out into the route, you've got to get open, you've got to catch the ball, and you've got to do something with it. He can do all those things, so he is a very, very good football player."
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Brady went as far as to compare Vereen to former Patriots backs Kevin Faulk and Danny Woodhead, two players who did many of the same things Vereen is currently doing. From a national perspective, Vereen's skill set compares well to Saints running back Darren Sproles.
Vereen has missed significant time over the past two seasons, but he is proving to be just as effective in comparison to those two. He has all of their ability and then some, but those two players were known for their dependability as much or more so than their ability.
When Vereen can say the same, he will be known as one of the better utility players in the league.
Erik Frenz is also a Patriots/AFC East writer for Boston.com. Unless otherwise noted, all quotes obtained firsthand or via team news releases.