NEPD Editor: Oliver Thomas
The New England Patriots’ Week 11 loss to the Carolina Panthers ended in controversy, 24-20. But there was nothing controversial about the difference third-year halfback Shane Vereen made in his return from short-term injured reserve.
The 2011 second-round draft pick was promoted to the 53-man roster Monday afternoon after missing the last eight games with a broken wrist, suffered during a 159-yard all-purpose performance in Week 1. Yet while Vereen was reportedly in line to be “eased” back, his role in the primetime battle in Charlotte, N.C., proved to be far less gradual.
It was like he never left.
The 5’10”, 205-pound California Golden Bear was on the field as early as New England’s second offensive play and as late as the final play, tallying 34 snaps. Over that span, he was used in pass protection and took only one seven-yard handoff from quarterback Tom Brady. The ball-carrier’s value, however, was demonstrated prominently under another title: receiver.
Vereen’s abilities as a dynamic playmaker netted him 11 targets from out wide and out of the backfield. The presence and purpose of No. 34 created a descrepancy for the Panthers defense, often assigning linebackers to cover him in space. In turn, Brady found him for three completions on first down, one on second down, and four on third down.
The 24-year-old Vereen notched a team-leading eight catches for 65 yards. In the process, he put a dent in the 22 receptions for 146 yards that fellow backs Stevan Ridley, LeGarrette Blount and Brandon Bolden compiled since Sept. 12.
Here is a closer look at what Vereen did to help the Patriots passing game.
First Quarter, 2nd-and-7: One-Yard Off-Tackle Screen*
On the second play of New England’s opening drive, the offense broke huddle in “11” personnel with Vereen and one tight end. Brady stood in shotgun as the tailback flanked beside him. Out left stood Rob Gronkowski and slot receiver Danny Amendola, and out right stood rookie wideout Aaron Dobson on the line.
Carolina’s defense countered with five defensive backs, while linebackers Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis bunched close in a drop-back zone.
The plan of attack was an off-tackle screen to Vereen, aided by Dobson’s vertical route and interior pull blocks from left guard Logan Mankins, center Ryan Wendell and right guard Dan Connolly. If the blocks met their respective assignments and the defensive backfield retreated deep, it would set up a runway for the 2011 second-round draft pick.
Brady took the snap and Dobson drew Panthers cornerback Drayton Florence into the second level. The signal-caller waited for the blockers to merge towards the numbers, and for Vereen to step in before slipping out of blitz pickup.
When those prerequisites were complete, Brady tossed down to Vereen, who was looking back to the ball.
Vereen snared the ball and pedaled outside, with assistance from his offensive blockade. Though, as the elusive runner cut back inside, Connolly delivered a high block in the back of Carolina safety Mike Mitchell.
Vereen was brought down by first-round defensive tackle Star Lotulelei after a five-yard gain. But after flags were thrown, New England was backed up to a 2nd-and-16.
First Quarter, 3rd-and-2: Three-Yard Option Route
Later on in the first frame, the Patriots encountered a 3rd-and-2. In search of a fresh set of downs, the grouping displayed “11” once again in a trend that continues to grow with Vereen.
Carolina responded with a single-high nickel, sending down rookie safety Robert Lester to cover Gronkowski and dispersing three corners to cover the receivers. The culmination of those decisions played into New England’s hands, as Vereen lined up as motioning wide receiver and was monitored by a linebacker in Davis.
He was plotting an option route, designed to deter rookie corner Melvin White on an inside block by Dobson and pivot back outside to shed Davis.
As the snap was handled, Brady assessed his prospects. He elected for Vereen, as the back veered for the sideline and lost the 6’1”, 235-pound Davis during the cut.
Looking the ball in over his left shoulder, Vereen lunged low and secured the short pass at the first-down sticks. Davis followed.
When the Patriots needed two, Brady found Vereen for three.
Second Quarter, 2nd-and-8: 17-Yard Quick Curl
On a 2nd-and-8 with four minutes left in the second quarter, the Patriots subbed Blount off the field and Vereen back on. As a result, Carolina stuck with a 4-2 alignment that designated Mike Mitchell as Cover-1 safety.
But as the Patriots got in stance, Vereen departed from Brady’s left hip pocket in shotgun and marched towards the boundary. That movement dragged Davis away from the box as well.
A mismatch of short-area quickness versus size was exposed. Vereen was scheming a quick curl, which would be alleviated by a fly route from undrafted receiver Kenbrell Thompkins.
Brady acknowledged the matchup pre-snap, and he delivered a strike post-snap. At that juncture, Vereen released and planted his left foot to propel back towards the pass. Davis, on the other hand, saw his momentum propel him back towards the first-down marker.
With White’s back to the ball, shielding Thompkins, the outskirts opened up just enough for Vereen. The flex back inhaled the pass at chest level and Davis redirected.
Staying low to the turf, Vereen carved inside of Davis. The Panther wrapped his arms around the pass-catcher’s feet but couldn’t tow him down. Vereen’s balance and arm extension keep him upright to eclipse the first.
He maneuvered near the line for eight more yards before Kuechly rolled him out of bounds at the Carolina 38. It was a 17-yard acquisition.
Third Quarter, 1st-and-10: 11-Yard Play-Action Misdirection Screen
As the second half of play commenced, Vereen found himself on the field and deep behind Brady under center. The Patriots spread three receivers, implementing Gronkowski in-line. The Panthers spread three cornerbacks to meet them, implementing Kuechly and Davis as zone-coverage ‘backers.
For New England, it was an opportunity to pursue the off-coverage defense. In an effort to do so, head coach Bill Belichick and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels opted for a play-action pass.
Amendola motioned behind Dobson, garnering the attention of the secondary. Both were gearing up for go patterns that would unarm the underneath.
Vereen would be the beneficiary.
Brady harnessed the snap and circled back to Vereen for the fake handoff. By that time, the two Panthers linebackers and cornerbacks had vacated the immediate premises.
Vereen left the Brady exchange without the football and jumped in to fulfil blitz-pickup responsibilities on the four-man rush. Nevertheless, those responsibilities were a temporary façade.
Vereen swung out behind left tackle Nate Solder and right defensive end Greg Hardy. He oriented towards the QB and reeled in the pass shortly thereafter.
Collecting the ball in stride, Vereen angled upfield with a convoy from the trenches. Connolly shouldered defensive tackle Colin Cole, Wendell shadowed, and Mankins zeroed in on cornerback Captain Munnerlyn.
Vereen sought the middle ground and bowled ahead.
With one final push, Vereen’s misdirection scamper yielded a first down before White sprinted from center field to stop him.
Third Quarter, 1st-and-10: Nine-Yard Bubble Screen
Less than four minutes later – succeeding two Blount power runs and a quick pass to shifty receiver Julian Edelman – the Patriots returned to Vereen via air. On a 1st-and-10, the offense bunched tight and cued the back in motion behind Thompkins. Those ingredients forced Carolina to crunch seven in the box and wander over along with the tandem.
That reaction coincided with New England’s intentions of a bubble screen.
As Brady initiated the play, Gronkowski cleared space on a decoy route that left Kuechly in hesitation. Simultaneously, Thompkins engaged in a block across the line on Mitchell.
Vereen was the first read, and Brady tossed the ball his way. Despite a well-timed leap from Hardy, the pass made contact with its receiver. And after a slight bobble, Vereen was able to tuck it away and meander through the edge of the defense.
Thompkins, Solder, Mankins and Wendell had created a wall. It would be up to Vereen to find a lane in that wall.
He did. Running under control with his hips low, Vereen was able to evade a tackle from Hardy and weave through the numbers.
Vereen negotiated enough real estate to leave the Patriots in a 2nd-and-short situation. He juked left and was upended by Lester at the Carolina 19. Blount cycled in to forge a first down on the next play from scrimmage.
Third Quarter, 3rd-and-2: Seven-Yard Flat Route
Facing a 3rd-and-2 at the one-minute mark in the third, the Patriots called Vereen’s number yet again. Down seven and at their own 28-yard line, New England needed stay on the field and keep Panthers quarterback Cam Newton off of it.
With Brady in shotgun, accompanied by Vereen, the Patriots showcased “11.” The Panthers, meanwhile, showcased a high-low safety formation with Davis hovering in zone and the cornerbacks in man.
It was a chance to deceive with a halfback flat route.
If Thompkins could sell the stutter fade out right, then he would lure White and Mitchell downfield as well. And if Vereen could sneak through the right B-gap unnoticed, then he would enter the flat without opposition.
The play got underway and Brady took a three-step drop. In the process, he deliberated looked towards the Patriots trio out left. The manipulation caught the attention of the Panthers linebackers. And that gave way to a Vereen catch – 10 yards away from Davis.
Vereen raised his hands for the football and corresponded by swiveling outside. He fought ahead for another five yards before Davis and the two defensive backs halted him.
The Patriots headed into the fourth and final quarter with new life. Three plays later, Vereen inherited a seven-yard draw for another first. And two plays after that carry, New England was in the end zone on a game-tying touchdown run by Ridley.
Fourth Quarter, 3rd-and-4: Six-Yard Flat Route
On a 3rd-and-4 with 10:05 remaining in the deadlocked game, the Patriots orchestrated trips left. After two more consecutive runs from Blount, the offense changed pace with Vereen, who motioned from the left to the right of Brady in shotgun.
The defense played two safeties deep. Unlike the safeties, though, Carolina’s linebackers and weak-side corner gathered close to the neutral zone.
But with Gronkowski gearing up for a go route that would stretch the field, Vereen was in good seating to make an impact on a flat route.
Brady obtained the snap and patiently stared down Gronkowski, who was shielded on both shoulders as well as overhead. But while the 6’6”, 265-pound threat wasn’t going to get open, those seconds afforded Vereen a shot to get open outside right tackle Marcus Cannon.
Vereen flew out of the backfield and exploded laterally towards the bench. His footwork put Davis in a moment of limbo.
That was all it took. Brady rifled a pass to Vereen. The third-year pro latched onto it with his palms up. From there, he rotated his right foot ahead of his left and made a beeline past the first-down plane.
After an additional three yards, Vereen lowered his left shoulder and absorbed a knock from Florence.
Vereen’s unique skillset functioned in rhythm with Gronkowski’s, and Carolina’s two-deep shell wasn’t the answer to disrupt it. Nonetheless, six plays later, New England was held to field goal.
Fourth Quarter, 1st-and-10: 11-Yard Hitch Route
Trailing 24-20 with 12 seconds left on the game clock and one timeout, the Patriots were in no-huddle mode. Consequently, the passing back was in the mix.
New England stuck with one back and one tight end, while the Panthers stuck with the nickel defense. Playing off to prevent the touchdown, the Panthers conceded the short game. For Vereen, that meant he’d have field to work with on a hitch through the left A-gap – especially with Gronkowski accumulating defenders on a vert.
Brady took the snap from the Carolina 36-yard line and wasted little time in finding a recipient. Vereen shuffled through the pass rush and skipped back to Brady untouched.
As he took a hit from defensive tackle Dwan Edwards, Brady also hit Vereen at the 30.
Vereen spun as he secured the catch. Tilting forward and around Kuechly, he fought to efficiently make the first down.
The 11-yard pass moved the Patriots within 25 yards of a touchdown. It expended only four seconds, allowing Brady to connect with Dobson on a seven-yard quick out with three seconds to spare.
Now ultimately, New England was unable to get the game-winning six on Monday night. But New England did get an integral chain-mover back on the offensive side of the ball.
Vereen had influence on the Patriots passing offense. He was thrown to more than any other skill player. And although he dropped two catchable balls – including a pivotal wheel route on New England’s final surge – Vereen’s purpose and spark was undeniable.
He was a personnel mismatch.