The loss of tight end Rob Gronkowski will force the New England Patriots to go back to the drawing board with their offense, but while the burden of replacing him will fall on several players, perhaps no player has become as essential to the offense as running back Shane Vereen.
For his abilities in both the running and the passing game, Vereen figures to be the most prominently featured skill position player for the Patriots as we hit the home stretch and head into the playoffs.
|Past four games|
|Player||Targets||Receptions||Catch %||Yds||Rec. 3rd conv.|
|Rest of offense||105||70||66.7||883||11|
|Pro Football Reference|
He has already proven to be one of quarterback Tom Brady's most trusted targets. With 40 receptions on the season, Vereen ranks third on the team, despite having played just five of the 13 games.
"Shane does a good job," head coach Bill Belichick said of his running back's abilities in the receiving game. "He's got good quickness, he's got good instinctive receiver skills, kind of when to make decisions relative to leverage he's being played with, the coverage—man, zone—linebacker leverage and so forth."
His quickness translates well to the receiving game, as we see here on this 16-yard reception in the third quarter. He ran a circle route out of the backfield, which essentially has him leak out of the backfield and run a slant route over the middle of the field.
Vereen matched up on a linebacker is a matchup Brady will take every time.
So when Vereen juked away from the defender and into the open area in the middle, Brady's decision and throw were made easy. From there, Vereen put his skills as a back on display to pick up some extra yards by weaving through defenders, putting his shoulder down and barreling forward.
Routes like this, and the extra yards they can sometimes create, give Brady a viable outlet option in the backfield, and that will be especially helpful if the Patriots are going to try to get receivers like Aaron Dobson and Kenbrell Thompkins involved in the vertical passing game; Brady will need a security blanket if those receivers aren't getting open and the pass rush is starting to close in.
Plays like this have helped the Patriots move the chains much more effectively on third down. This season, they have converted 33 of 71 third downs (46.5 percent) with Vereen in the lineup compared 33 of 108 third downs (30.6 percent) without him. That's the value of a running back who can serve as a security blanket or reliable checkdown option.
Words like "checkdown" and "security blanket" really don't do Vereen justice as a receiver.
Take, for example, his 50-yard reception on a go route in the third quarter, just prior to the aforementioned play.
Vereen started off lined up in the backfield and motioned out wide before the snap. With linebacker Craig Robertson matched up on him in man coverage, Brady immediately knew where he was going with the ball. He pump-faked before putting the ball in the air.
Robertson was late in turning his hips, and Vereen immediately hit the gas to get right past him.
A perfect rainbow over the defense allowed Vereen to track the ball in flight, get under it and make the over-the-shoulder catch. Many running backs may have been able to make the reception, as it was a perfectly thrown ball that hit Vereen in stride, but there aren't many backs that could run a go route as effectively as he did.
For all of his redeeming qualities as a receiver, it's easy to forget at times that he can run the ball very effectively too. At times, it seems he is only a running back in name, not in actual duty, but he can be dangerous when he gets the ball in his hands, no matter how it gets there.
We often see Vereen carry the ball out of the shotgun, which gives the illusion of a pass and gets the defense on its heels, creating space in the middle and allowing the offensive line to charge forward and get the defense blocked while it's still off guard.
That accurately describes what happened to Cleveland Browns linebacker D'Qwell Jackson on Vereen's six-yard touchdown run in the third quarter; wide receiver Danny Amendola charged downfield and pancaked Jackson before the linebacker even had a chance to respond to the play.
On the season, Vereen has 38 carries for 186 yards (4.9 yards per attempt leads all Patriots running backs), and according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), he has earned 40.3 percent of his rushing yards on "breakaway carries" of 15 yards or more. That gives you an idea of his explosive nature in the running game.
Put Vereen's running and receiving ability together, and you have a player that can be moved around to create headaches for defenses that will have a hard time matching up with him.
He puts defensive coordinators in a bind with regards to how to account for him; if they put a linebacker on him, Brady is likely to audible to a pass that can capitalize on Vereen's quickness advantage. If they put a cornerback or safety on him, the Patriots are liable to run the ball and capitalize on the size advantage.
So, no matter the situation, Vereen has a valuable role in the offense. If the Patriots are going to rebound from the injury to Gronkowski, Vereen will likely lend a big hand in the process.
Erik Frenz is also a Patriots/AFC East writer for Boston.com. Unless otherwise noted, all quotes obtained firsthand or via team news releases.