FOXBORO, Mass. — Since Shane Vereen broke his wrist against the Bills in Week 1, Nov. 18 has been a very important date on the Patriots’ schedule.
That’s when Vereen is eligible to return and New England will be able to display its “full” offense. Of course, since Week 1, Sebastian Vollmer was placed on injured reserve with a broken leg, so we’ll never know exactly how good this offense could have been, but Marcus Cannon has been an impressive replacement so far, so we’ll have a pretty good idea.
From Week 11 to the end of the season, there could be a drastic improvement in the Patriots’ offense. Tom Brady will have his normal third-down option back, Danny Amendola and Rob Gronkowski will get fully healthy and Aaron Dobson should continue to make strides with the playbook.
The offense will need to step up, too. The Patriots have some tough defenses coming up on the schedule. In this week’s mailbag, we’ll look at how Vereen will fit into a Patriots offense that looked much improved against the Steelers. [tweet https://twitter.com/bromar24/status/401009835220561920 align=center]
I fully expect Vereen to be back this week when the Patriots travel to Carolina. The third-down back has had a wrap on his left wrist at practice, but it’s likely he could have returned earlier had he not been placed on short-term injured reserve.
Vereen may not immediately return to a full share of snaps, but he will definitely have a role on third down. I don’t expect Stevan Ridley‘s carries to decrease much. LeGarrette Blount and Brandon Bolden will likely see a decrease in reps. Bolden will get some much-needed rest as he continues to recover from a knee injury that has plagued him for most of the season.
Ridley still averaged more than 18 carries per game last season when Danny Woodhead and Vereen were sharing snaps. The backfield will full round into shape with Vereen back.
Though Vereen may only be used on third downs in the next couple of weeks, he has the ability to be an every-down back. So he’ll definitely get some opportunities on first and second down as he gets back into game shape. [tweet https://twitter.com/rdugan90/status/401009540759842816 align=center]
The Panthers and Broncos are two totally different teams. The Patriots probably match up better with Denver than they do Carolina, though the Broncos are the better team.
To beat the Panthers, New England will need to drastically improve its run defense. Without much speed along the front seven, Cam Newton could run circles around the Patriots’ defense.
Carolina’s defense is also dangerous. Brady needs to get rid of the ball quicker, and Ridley, Vereen and Blount need to establish the run early and often.
The key to stopping Denver is limiting Peyton Manning and his impressive array of targets. We’ll likely see Aqib Talib on Demaryius Thomas, Alfonzo Dennard on Eric Decker, Kyle Arrington on Wes Welker and, well, who knows on Julius Thomas. That could be the key to stopping the Broncos.
It’s possible we see Talib on Julius Thomas and Logan Ryan on a receiver (most likely Decker). Or we could see a safety on Julius Thomas. But that could depend on whether Steve Gregory is back for Week 12 or not. The team would likely feel much more comfortable playing Gregory on Thomas and allowing Duron Harmon to patrol the back end of the defense with Devin McCourty than mixing in Tavon Wilson.
It’s unlikely we see a linebacker attempt to cover Thomas, unless the plan to is to jam him into oblivion on the line. [tweet https://twitter.com/LukeTansley2/status/401011774327361536 align=center]
The Patriots don’t necessarily need him to play at an elite level. He just needs to be solid next to Dan Connolly. Having Gronkowski back to help in run blocking will be very big. Gronk won’t stay in as a pass blocker often, but the Patriots could bring in Matthew Mulligan or Michael Hoomanawanui to help.
Cannon has been surprisingly solid so far. It will be interesting to see how well he develops as the season progresses. There were high hopes for the third-year player when he was drafted in the fifth round out of TCU. This is his first real opportunity to shine. [tweet https://twitter.com/hhRafael24/status/401016040127082496 align=center]
There’s just not a whole lot else out there. If Leon Washington is a solid leader in the running back room, that could be enough to warrant a roster spot.
The Patriots do need to make room on the roster for Vereen, though. And since Washington hasn’t contributed much, he could be an option. It could be worth putting Washington on injured reserve just to keep him in the locker room. [tweet https://twitter.com/yaunti/status/401018407627538432 align=center]
Either team could make the playoffs, but it’s looking pretty unlikely. If there’s a sneaky team in the AFC North that could make waves in the second half of the season, it could be Cleveland. Jason Campbell has always been one of the most underrated quarterbacks in the league.
The AFC is incredibly weak this year. So we could see some shocking teams in the playoff race. I don’t expect Buffalo to be one of them, though.
As for the second part of the question, the defense can’t take too many steps back, and the offense has to make big improvements, despite facing some tough competition. The Patriots have lost many really good players for the season, but there are still some good ones coming back. Vereen, Talib and Gregory will give the team a boost when they come back. And the midseason additions, Andre Carter and Isaac Sopoaga both played well against the Steelers.
If that can continue, it will at least diminish the loss of Jerod Mayo, Vince Wilfork and Tommy Kelly. The 2010 Packers proved that teams can still win Super Bowls after losing valuable players for the season.