NEPD Editor: Oliver Thomas
There’s something to be said for dictating an opponent’s movements. Shane Vereen’s utilization has helped him do so.
That was on display Sunday, as the New England Patriots opened up the 2014 season against the Miami Dolphins at Sun Life Stadium. The 5’10”, 205-pound running back caught five passes for 35 yards, and he handled seven carries for 36 yards and a goal-line touchdown as well.
But Vereen’s impact in a 33-20 defeat was about more than what he did with the football. Over his 53 snaps, it was often about what he did without it.
Miami’s adjustments were evident as early as the 13:52 mark in the first quarter, even on a play that ultimately ended in an incompletion.
It started when New England broke huddle in “11” personnel with Vereen and tight end Rob Gronkowski. The Dolphins countered the showcase of one back, one tight end and three receivers by assembling in a 4-2 nickel.
Vereen lined up next to quarterback Tom Brady in shotgun across from it. He would not be there for long.
The multidimensional 2011 second-round pick motioned into the slot. And in doing so, the dimensions of Miami’s defense were required to account for him.
The unit swung linebacker Dannell Ellerbe over to face Vereen. Cornerback Will Davis dropped into off coverage to the left of him, and safety Louis Delmas dropped down behind him.
It left a vacancy between the hashes.
Brady stepped up into the closing pocket and targeted Gronkowski cutting back across the middle. It flicked through his fingertips. Incomplete.
When the clock struck 11:46 in the first, though, the outcome was different.
The Patriots dispersed in “11” once again, with “F” tight end Tim Wright in the hip pocket of right tackle Sebastian Vollmer. Concurrently, Vereen departed from Brady’s.
Miami’s 4-3 base shifted accordingly. Middle linebacker Koa Misi – once looming back from the Patriots’ right B-gap – stepped over to the left side. Ellerbe soon joined him, squaring with receiver Julian Edelman in the slot.
And with those changes in assignment, cornerback Cortland Finnegan left Edelman to cover Vereen wide left.
Brady took the snap and Wright carved around the teeth of the Miami line. He found a window there for a nine-yard gain. Yet, in many ways, that window opened before the play began.
Three of Vereen’s first four snaps against Miami transpired out wide or in the slot. And on that fourth snap, it was his own number that was called on for a reception.
A nine-yard gain was the byproduct as he planted back to the sideline.
With 7:44 to play in the opening frame, it was Gronkowski’s turn. Across from Miami’s 4-2, New England returned to “11” personnel for a five-wide set. Within it, Vereen stood to the right of Gronkowski down the near boundary.
He did not motion there, but the subtlety still managed to draw the attention of Delmas.
Delmas signaled to Ellerbe to switch places, leaving the linebacker on the halfback and the safety on the tight end.
The transition came to fruition. And against the 5’11”, 210-pound veteran safety, the 6’6”, 265-pound Gronkowski was able to make the most of the difference.
His quick curl netted nine yards against single coverage, all while Vereen sprinted up the seam under the chase of a linebacker with 40 pounds on him.
Now, Vereen’s role as an alternative wideout resurfaced once more in the second quarter on an incompletion to Danny Amendola, but it was an element the Patriots moved away from as the game wore on.
The Patriots appeared to move away from personnel change-ups as well.
After the first quarter saw Vereen’s most dynamic use in New England’s offense – playing him in “11” personnel seven times, “20” four times, “12” three times down in the red zone – the game plan lost some of its variation as the Patriots’ lead dissipated.
Vereen was in for “11” 11 times and “20” with Brandon Bolden once during the second quarter. And in the third, he was in for “11” three times and “20” twice with Bolden.
That two-back set was not prevalent. It was, however, something the Dolphins had to assess closely when head coach Bill Belichick and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels elected for it.
It was something New England deployed Vereen and Bolden in for four plays by the time the game concluded. Just one of which went to Vereen, while the other three translated in misdirecting pass attempts to his counterpart.
Yet, in all, Vereen finished having played 43 snaps from a one-back, one-tight end set, seven from two-back personnel – paired with Bolden or fullback James Develin – and three from a one-back, two-tight end set. In the process, the fourth-year pro finished having led the Patriots backfield in snaps, doubling the combined output of Bolden and Stevan Ridley.
There’s reason behind it.
After a season in which he amassed 47 catches for 427 yards and three touchdowns over only eight games, Vereen’s production has placed him under the defensive microscope.
And he no longer needs the ball for it to be realized.