Someone. Individual. Subject.
Those were the words that New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick used to identify former tight end Aaron Hernandez during his Wednesday afternoon press conference. Hernandez, an exceptionally talented player, won’t suit up in a Patriots uniform again after allegedly murdering multiple individuals. As a consequence, the Patriots have been forced to reconfigure their offense.
Belichick has changed his offense multiple times in the past, most notably when he added star wide receiver Randy Moss and then later got rid of him mid-season. This season, Belichick will have to look to other options to make up for the production Hernandez had last season. One option to pick up the slack is running back Shane Vereen.
Vereen, a former second-round selection, hasn’t had a heavy workload since joining the Patriots in 2011. He’s only touched the ball 85 times in two years because of multiple reasons, including injuries, and other backs ahead of him on the depth chart. That looks to change this year, however, as he becomes the No. 2 back behind starter Stevan Ridley following the departure of Danny Woodhead. The shift up the depth chart means Vereen will be asked to carry the ball more — which the Patriots as a whole did the second most (523 carries) last season — and become a factor in the passing game, an area which he excels at.
When Vereen was drafted by the Patriots out of the University of California, I immediately wrote that he would be the second coming of running back Kevin Faulk. Faulk was an underrated key cog in the Patriots’ offense during the dozen years he was in Foxboro, making quarterback Tom Brady’s job easier as he picked up blitzers and served as an outlet underneath when Brady needed him most. Once he caught the ball, he made defenders miss with jump cuts and other shifty moves to pick up yards after the catch much like Vereen does.
The modern day version of Kevin Faulk — Vereen — can do the same for the Patriots but with more explosiveness and versatility. Where Vereen differs from Faulk is that he’s quicker laterally and faster straight ahead. In addition, he can line up at traditional receiver alignments and run routes from those spots, making him a potentially dangerous weapon.
One example of the above came in the AFC Divisional round last January against the Houston Texans. It was 1st-and-10 with 13:33 left to go in the fourth quarter. The Patriots were holding a 31-13 advantage and driving again with the ball on the Texans’ 33-yard line. No. 34 (Vereen) was lined up to the far left in the wide side of the field, and at the top of the screen because of the Patriots’ empty gun formation. He was matched up one-on-one with inside linebacker Barrett Ruud, who is not fleet of foot and frankly should not be covering the boundary.
Ruud was lined up inside of Vereen and isolated in man coverage. The way he’s taught to play this style of coverage is to constrict the space that Vereen has to run by pinning him to the sideline. If he can get his hands on the running back to slow him down, he’ll be able to pin him to the sideline and effectively shut him out of the play. It didn’t quite work out that way, though.
When Vereen releases off the line of scrimmage, he has a large cushion of roughly seven to eight yards to work with. The room gives him the ability to set up a double move that’s administered at the 28-yard line where Vereen angles his shoulders and hips to the inside of the formation while also giving an abrupt jab of his right foot.
Once Vereen jabs inside, Ruud breaks down in coverage and takes false steps forward. He went from having his back turned to the middle of the field to it diagonally facing the middle, which proved to be all that was needed for Vereen to accelerate past him and run down the left sideline to catch a perfectly placed pass over his shoulder for six points.
Vereen’s acceleration and long speed should be problematic for other linebackers as well this season, especially when he gets out into the open field.
As noted earlier, he compares well to Faulk in the sense that he’s going to become an outlet receiver and a so-called “safety blanket” for Brady when there’s no other options left. Like Faulk, he’ll run underneath routes to help Brady out in those situations, and there’s a good chance he’ll be able to pick up yards in chunks after the catch like he did against the Baltimore Ravens in AFC Championship.
The ball was on the 41-yard line and this time the Patriots were down 28-13. They were in an up-tempo offense as a consequence and looking to pick up yards in a hurry. One of the fastest ways to do that was to dump the ball off to Vereen on a simple option route in the short side of the field.
When the play began, Vereen ran wide of the right offensive tackle and then turned downfield, running straight into the Ravens’ Cover 2 defense. His option route was simply designed: if the defense man covered, run away from the defense, and if it zone covered, sit in the nearest hole. And because it was Cover 2, a five-under, two deep zone shell, Vereen sat in between the cornerback and near linebacker.
Once Brady quickly scanned the field, he threw the ball to Vereen, who caught it in between the aforementioned defenders and made a quick move toward the line of scrimmage and then back downfield. He made the cornerback take a poor angle and miss and then ran away from the linebacker to pick up nine yards on first down.
Vereen’s acceleration, quickness and route-running skills came in handy once again on the play above, the type of play that we should expect to see more of during the upcoming season.
Vereen will be relied on to help replace the production that the team got from you know who last season. Belichick won’t be able to entirely replace the versatility that the former tight end brought, but he’ll be able to use other weapons like Vereen to make a good attempt. Vereen finished last season strong and is in position to handle a heavier workload than the 85 touches he received his first two years in the league. Now it’s up Belichick and Brady to get him the ball.