For two seasons, it looked like the Patriots found the better running back in the 2011 draft with the No. 73 overall pick, not with the 56th pick.
But on Sunday afternoon, Shane Vereen said “not so fast.” Stevan Ridley was benched less than seven minutes into the second quarter after fumbling for the second time.
New England tried to supplant their starter with LeGarrette Blount before going with their third-down back for most of the rest of the game. Vereen proved he can be an every-down back by churning out 101 hard-fought yards on 14 carries and seven catches for 58.
At 5-foot-10, 205 pounds, Vereen is slightly smaller than your typical bell-cow back. But if the former Cal Bear can continue to bounce off defenders (and his offensive line — at one point left tackle Nate Solder grabbed Vereen in the middle of a run), he should continue to get the bulk of the carries.
Bill Belichick does not put up with turnovers. There’s good reason for it, too. Nothing affects a game like a coughed up ball or pickoff. Sunday’s game against the Bills was Exhibit A in that regard. Every time the Patriots looked like they were going to start putting the game away, they gave up the football.
Of course, the Bills did the same in the first half. Kyle Arrington forced two fumbles and New England recovered both.
Those turnovers are why Ridley was benched. Not only did the third-year running back have to be taught a lesson, the team couldn’t trust to keep him in there anymore.
Vereen has only fumbled once in his two year career. He coughed up the ball on a reception in 2012 and lost the fumble. Including playoffs, Ridley has now fumbled eight times and lost five of them. Ridley has far more carries than his best friend on the Patriots, Vereen, but that’s still a concerning statistic.
New England kept BenJarvus Green-Ellis around for so long largely due to his ability to hold on to the football. Ridley may never live up to his lofty potential in New England for the opposite reason.
Obviously we’re only one game in and it’s possible Ridley was benched as a precautionary or disciplinary measure. He could very well start in Week 2, have a huge game and all fumbling issues will be forgotten.
But Vereen proved he can be the every-down back in New England and he did it when the team needed it most. I avoided using terms like gritty or scrappy when describing Danny Amendola because using those terms with white, short wide receivers is as cliche as it comes.
But those are the words that fit Vereen as he was pin-balling off defenders in the fourth quarter. Vereen was one of just three players Tom Brady could depend on late in the game. Buffalo defenders knew there was a good chance the ball was coming Vereen’s way and he plowed his way through them anyway.
There are some durability concerns with Vereen. And the Patriots will need to mix in different backs regardless to keep Vereen awake on third down. But It would be unsurprising to see Vereen come out of the season with more rushing yards than either Ridley or Blount.
Vereen was thought of as an every-down back when he was coming out of Cal. The Patriots decided he was a pass-catching back. But he has the skills to do what Ridley did in 2012, albeit in a different fashion.
There were a few seasons during Kevin Faulk‘s long career the Patriots needed to depend on the former third-down back more heavily. This may be one of those seasons for Vereen this year.
One of those big seasons out of Faulk came in 2003. The Patriots would happily take the same end results 10 years later.