Lost in all the highlights, records and high-five memes following the Patriots win Sunday was the fact that their offense will likely be adding one of it's top weapons next week.
Running back Shane Vereen has been on injured reserve with a designation to return ever since breaking his wrist in Week One. Now that he has missed a mandated total of 8 games, Vereen is eligible to return and early signs are pointing to him being on the field next Monday Night against the Carolina Panthers.
Vereen's dynamic ability to catch the ball out of the backfield adds an entirely new dimension to the Patriots offense. The Patriots allowed Danny Woodhead to leave via free agency last offseason largely because they felt the more talented Vereen was ready to play his third down role. With Vereen injured, that role had fallen all the way down the depth chart to Brandon Bolden, who has had his struggles with drops this year.
Not only is Vereen better at catching the ball, but he also is unparalleled in run-after-the-catch ability. Vereen's pure speed and shiftiness allowing him to create miss tackles and exploit seams in a way his peers in the backfield simply cannot.
Most importantly, though, is the matchup nightmares Vereen creates out of the backfield. There simply aren't many guys in the league that can turn and run with him, especially at the linebacker position. The more mismatches there are on the field, the easier it is for Tom Brady to find open receivers and get into a rhythm.
Think about it from the defense's perspective. Imagine facing the Patriots offense, lined up with two tight ends (Gronk and Hoomanawanui), two wide (Amendola and Dobson) and Vereen in the backfield. With two excellent blocking tight ends on the field, you have to be prepared to stop the run. However, at the same time, a play action pass could force you to scramble to cover Gronk, Amendola, Dobson AND Vereen, likely out of base personnel. Good luck finding a defense with enough athletes to do that.
Vereen's presumed return does leave one important question: how does it effect Stevan Ridley? Ridley finally got used like the feature back he's proven to be last week, gaining 115 yards and two touchdowns on his 26 carries. Will Ridley continue to get fed the ball even with Vereen available to take snaps?
My line of thought suggests that Ridley might see a slight dip in his carries, but that the difference will be minimal due to the different skill sets of the different backs. Much of Vereen's playing time will come on third down and other passing situations, rendering Bolden largely irrelevant for the rest of the year. Both backs clearly bring an important skill set to the table: powerful, downhill running from Ridley, and an explosive big play threat on outside runs and in the passing game from Vereen. There's no reason they can't both see enough touches to make plays.
Vereen's return comes at a most opportune time for the Pats as well. With the defense continuing to get battered on the injury front, it's looking more and more likely that the offense will have to carry the defense in the season's second half. If that is indeed the case, it's encouraging to know that, for the first time all season, Brady will likely have his full arsenal of weapons next week.