Vereen finally had his coming out party on Sunday night, and he did it in the biggest game of his young career. In his postseason debut, Vereen ran for 41 yards, hauled in five passes for another 83 yards and became just the third Patriots player ever to score three touchdowns in a playoff game — joining Curtis Martin and Rob Gronkowski. It was a good night for Vereen, but he nearly didn’t get a chance to put up those big totals.
Danny Woodhead was the running back that started the game in the Patriots’ backfield, and the game plan was originally meant to revolve around him, at least according to Tom Brady after the game. But a first-quarter thumb injury caused a change of plans, and Vereen immediately stepped in to fill Woodhead’s shoes.
“We hate to lose Woody,” Vereen said in the locker room after the 41-28 win. “He is such a key part of our offense, but at the same time, all of the running backs hold ourselves accountable to be able to step up when somebody does go down.”
Vereen’s performance against the Texans wasn’t merely a matter of stepping up, though. Instead, it was more of a grand revelation.
A variety of injuries have kept the former second-round pick off the field for much of his young career, and he’s struggled to find consistent playing time even when healthy. Sunday’s performance just goes to show why Vereen was so sought after coming out of college and what sort of skills he can add to an already potent Patriots offense.
Woodhead was a key for the Patriots’ offense all season, filling Kevin Faulk‘s old role as a versatile change-of-pace playmaker out of the backfield. On Sunday, Vereen very well may have usurped that role, and, if not, at least earned himself a more consistent place in the offense.
Vereen disclosed after the game that he saw increased reps in practice during the week, hinting that his role in the offense has already begun to expand. Bill Belichick went on to confirm that notion while offering his young back some praise.
“Shane obviously made a lot of big plays,” Belichick said after the game. “A lot of credit goes to Tom for finding him but also to Shane for running good routes, catching the ball in tight coverage, running after the catch, all those things. Obviously it’s something we worked on during the week.”
Nothing is certain yet about the extent of Woodhead’s injury, although early reports indicate he could play against Baltimore on Sunday, but Vereen’s success in his place could mean a changing of the guard in New England.
Brady wouldn’t even approach the idea of nixing Woodhead from the game plan, given the tailback’s importance to the offense, but he did acknowledge the possibility of a larger role for Vereen moving forward, even calling the second-year back’s performance “special.”
“Shane had a great game,” Brady said. “Really just a huge growing up moment for him, so very special.”
Woodhead’s place in the Patriots’ offense is nowhere near extinct, as his speed and elusiveness are just too valuable for Belichick and Brady to waste. But Vereen also has an immense amount of talent, and he carved out his very own niche in the offense during his first career playoff game.
That sort of performance will only bring Vereen even more opportunities — and maybe even a chance to become the Patriots’ new third-down back.