The biggest loss for the Patriots this early in the season has to be running back Shane Vereen.
Vereen was the most impactful player on offense for New England. He rushed the ball 14 times for 101 yards for a 7.2 average yards per carry. He also had seven receptions for 58 yards, an 8.3 average yards per catch. He helped keep that Patriots offense moving.
Even though injury prone Danny Amendola is out for about six weeks with a severe groin injury and Kenbrell Thompkins’ Cinderella preseason has since turned back into a pumpkin, the loss of Vereen until about Week 11 may be the toughest loss.
In the first half of the Week One game against Buffalo, Vereen was only on the field in passing situations. For the 15 plays he was on the field, every single one of them had Brady in the shotgun. In 13 of those 15 plays, Vereen was positioned in the backfield with Brady in the traditional shot-gun spot. During the other two plays, Vereen was lined up on the outside as a receiver.
|Vereen split out left
Vereen was targeted both times that he was lined up on the outside, resulting in one incompletion and one 14 yard catch and run, during which he flashed his superlative receiving skills and open-field elusiveness. Vereen also had a couple of long runs out of the shotgun formation, making for a very productive first half.
It was the second half where Vereen stood out. When Stevan Ridley was benched in the second quarter for fumbling, his early-down role was filled by LeGarrette Blount. After halftime, there was a clear shift in the Patriots’ approach, as Vereen came out on the first New England offensive play of the third quarter, on a non-shotgun play. Vereen effectively took over the early-down role for the rest of the game, and was extremely productive. It’s reasonable to assume that Belichick views Vereen as potential every-down player, not just someone who is limited to a third down role.
To view different parts of Vereen’s game, here are two plays to break down, both of which involve Vereen carrying the ball between the tackles out of a more traditional running formation.
The first of these plays came on a 2nd and 10, with 10:57 remaining in the 2nd quarter, on the New England 20 yard line.
Here is a simple look at Vereen lined up in the one back set, the first time he was lined up in a non-shotgun formation.
The Patriots are going to run an outside zone play to the left, which calls for the offensive lineman to angle block to the left to pick up defenders that are in their path. The running back is not running to a pre-determined hole, but instead has to identify where a hole emerges. He also has to keep an eye out for cutback lanes that can appear as a result of the offensive line and defensive players all flowing in one direction.
Take note of where the center, Ryan Wendell (#62) begins this play. This will provide some context as to how far the linemen have moved in the upcoming screenshots.
Keep in mind the overall movement of the offensive lineman moving laterally left. The green dotted line shows the path that Wendell took since he snapped the ball. The rest of the down lineman took a similar angle. Vereen followed these blockers.
Wendell and Logan Mankins (#70) are double-teaming Marcel Dareus (#99) while at the same time keeping an eye on Kiko Alonso (#50), the linebacker. Depending on which direction Alonso moves, Mankins or Wendell will slide off Dareus and pick Alonso up. Alonso is mirroring Vereen’s movement to the offense’s left, which puts him on Mankins’ path, who in turn has already begun to leave Dareus to go meet the block on Alonso.
As for Vereen, his job is to take the hand-off, keeping his eyes up to see where the best hole develops as his blockers all pick up their blocks.
At this point, Mankins has left Wendell alone to hold the block against Dareus, and made a great block on Alonso downfield (refer to the green circle on the left). Vereen quickly identified the hole and shifted straight up field.
Aaron Williams (#23), inside the red circle, makes the eventual tackle on this play after Vereen gains 20 yards. Vereen is able to gain big yardage with Williams out of position. He overplayed the offense’s left as he followed the motion of the New England blockers. Williams realizes he’s out of position and was too late in reacting to Vereen’s cut up field. Outside zone runs and stretches are relatively slow, developing plays that often involve a lot of lateral movement before any forward gains are made.
Vereen turns the play into a 20 yard gain. He is eventually tackled by Williams and Jim Leonard. It was a perfectly blocked zone running play and Vereen made the correct read and executed the change of direction quickly and efficiently. This was a big reason why the Patriots ran the same thing on the next play:
The Patriots came out on the next play in the exact same formation as the last one with Vereen lined up in the backfield behind Brady. This time the ball was set at the left hash-mark. Essentially the same play call, you can see that the offensive line is again flowing to their left. Vereen is receiving the handoff at this time with his head up searching for a hole.
Michael Hoomanawanui (#47) has not followed the offense’s movement to the left as he is responsible for picking up the backside linebacker, Jerry Hughes (#55). This is an important block because of how slow developing outside zone run plays unfold. If that linebacker is left unchecked he could tackle Vereen in the backfield before the play gets started.
This play shows the talent of Vereen. Unlike during the prior play, when he took the hand-off and followed the movement of his offensive line, no running lanes were open. The Buffalo defenders have committed to filling the running lanes.
Part of Vereen’s job is to keep an eye on the backside area to see if any cutback lanes open. Thanks to the Bills’ over-pursuit, the cutback lane is available to Vereen to take. That's if he can properly indentify it on the play, which he does. You can see Vereen in the process of reversing his direction back to the right to daylight.
Vereen may be an excellent receiver and a slightly-undersized running back, but that does not mean he’s a only a scat back. While he doesn’t have the bulk and power of Ridley, he’s a tough, smart runner who has the ability to break tackles. He clearly possesses good instincts in identifying the proper running lanes inside, as opposed to looking to bounce everything to the perimeter.
Vereen has quickness, receiving ability, and breakaway speed to go along with his smart running. Losing Vereen to injured reserve for eight weeks is a huge hit to the Patriots. He is a critical cog to their offense and playoff hopes.
Michael Reardon is a Fantasy Football writer and Patriots Insider columnist who has followed the New England Patriots for years. An amateur football player himself, Michael uses his knowledge and experience to illustrate the finer points of the game. You can follow him on twitter @mjreardon
[Disclaimer: Images courtesy screen shots of game replay and are copyright of their respective owners including (but not limited to) the NFL, Buffalo Bills and New England Patriots. Images used for illustration purposes only.]