Tom Brady had played his entire career with a dependable third-down back.
First, the signal caller had Kevin Faulk. And when Faulk went down with occasional injuries, Brady had Patrick Pass to rely on. When Faulk started wearing down, the Patriots acquired Danny Woodhead and the offense didn’t skip a beat. Shane Vereen was supposed to fill that role this year.
So it’s no wonder that Brady struggled when he lost that safety valve. He was supposed to regain his elite ability when Rob Gronkowski came back and even that didn’t do it. Brady looked like his vintage self against the Steelers, but Pittsburgh has a beyond-crappy defense. That was a good sign, but certainly no proof that Brady was back to form.
After his performance against a top-notch Carolina defense, though? We can say Brady is back. And having his third-down option in the backfield helped immeasurably.
Vereen converted first downs on seven of his nine touches — four on third down. He had a key drop late in the fourth quarter on a wheel route, but beyond that play, he was as dependable as a Faulk or a Woodhead.
Brandon Bolden filled in admirably for Vereen, but he’s not the same type of player. Vereen is exceptionally valuable because he can line up split out wide. He may not have the versatility of an Aaron Hernandez, but it’s close.
When Vereen’s in the game, opposing defenses have no idea what to do. Running base or nickel forces a linebacker on Vereen split out. Running dime makes them susceptible to a big run.
So, what did Brady do with Vereen back? He completed 72.5 percent of his passes — his highest clip of the season — for 296 yards with a touchdown and interception (that should have been called pass interference). And eight of those 11 incompletions came on the fourth quarter drive when it benefited Brady to stop to clock and when Carolina knew New England was not looking to run.
Vereen caught eight of his 11 targets for 65 yards. He ran the ball just once for seven yards, but being the team’s leading receiver as a running back coming off a broken wrist is no small feat.
Reports came out before the game that Vereen would be eased into the offense. That was not the case.
The Patriots have plenty of tough defenses left on the schedule. But New England proved its offense can stack up against even the best defenses.
The game didn’t turn out as the Patriots may have hoped — it is an L after all, but that’s a big positive to come away with.