Few coaches can operate a running back carousel quite like Bill Belichick, though Mike Shanahan is the ringmaster. Earlier this year we had hardly heard of Brandon Bolden, and then suddenly he had 137 rushing yards at a pace of 8.6 per carry in Week 4 against the Bills.
Now, enter Shane Vereen. After losing the battle for the starting job to Stevan Ridley during training camp, Vereen had been relegated to spot duty, receiving double-digit carries only twice. The result was meaningful and important yet still unspectacular production, with Vereen’s single-game rushing high a 49-yard outing way back in Week 7, and he finished with 149 total receiving yards, 91 of which came in one week. Overall then he averaged just 5.7 yards per touch, and 36.4 yards per game appearance (11) with four touchdowns.
So of course today during New England’s 41-28 win over the Texans he was summoned off the bench in a greater capacity after Danny Woodhead’s thumb injury, and he scored three times while finishing with 124 total yards.
Woodhead’s injury may have thrust Vereen into a larger role, but it’s how he was deployed by Bill Belichick and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels that brought the intrigue. On his 33-yard touchdown catch in the fourth quarter, Vereen was motioned way out wide, creating a massive mismatch in open space with linebacker Barrett Ruud.
This is what happens when a small shifty guy is asked to out run a slower, much more cumbersome guy…
That’s the kind of versatility which should lead to very little concern about the absence of Rob Gronkowski and possibly Woodhead going forward. Offense wasn’t the Patriots’ problem today during a win powered by a second-half 24-point surge, finishing in the sixth time this year that they’ve scored at least 40 points. Beyond Vereen, the Pats’ were very Pats-like offensively, with Tom Brady throwing for 344 yards and three touchdowns, and three of his 25 completions were for 30 or more yards.
No, next week the defensive backfield remains a concern, along with an inability to defend tight ends.
Safeties Devin McCourty and Steve Gregory continue to be a liability against tight ends, as Owen Daniels had nine catches for 81 yards, a mark he eclipsed in only one other game this year. The Patriots came into today as the second worst defense against tight ends, allowing 64.4 yards per game to the position. The immediate reaction is to disregard this weakness next week during their AFC Championship game matchup against Baltimore, mostly because Dennis Pitta is a replacement-level tight end. But then you’re forgetting that in Week 15 against a Broncos secondary that’s similarly awful at defending tight ends, Pitta had a season-high 125 receiving yards and two touchdowns.
So that could suck, and it’ll be one of Baltimore’s few advantages. Then there’s also the matter of Torrey Smith, and his mockery of Champ Bailey yesterday. Sure, Champ is more of a chump now due to age. But even with his slowing step, I’ll still take him over any Patriots defensive back.
Back in Week 3 when these two teams met in Baltimore the result was a 31-30 Ravens win after a last-second Justin Tucker field goal. In that game, Smith had 127 receiving yards and two touchdowns. It was one of his two +100 yard games this year, and also one of the five games when he was utilized often with double-digit targets. Of course, since then Aqib Talib has been added to the Patriots’ secondary, and he was mostly left chasing tonight as Andre Johnson caught eight balls for 95 yards.
We’ll be looking at this matchup so much more this week, with so many more words. But consider this little toe-diping our first glance. Also, let’s just hope everyone keeps their clothes on…