Craig Robertson, Shane VereenFOXBORO, Mass. — He finally caught it.

For three straight weeks, Shane Vereen dropped deep targets from Tom Brady. He was given a fourth opportunity on Sunday and made the most of it.

Coming into the season, Vereen was supposed to take the third-down role Kevin Faulk and Danny Woodhead created and build upon it.

Then, the California product broke his wrist in Week 1. The season-long expectations surrounding Vereen were put to rest, but it may have been the best thing for the Patriots and the third-down back.

New England went 6-2 without Vereen and got him back just in time for Stevan Ridley‘s fumbles to pick up again. Now, Vereen is at full health while the rest of the league is beat up from playing 13 games.

On Sunday, Vereen accomplished something Faulk and Woodhead had never done in this offense. He had 12 catches for 153 yards. Faulk and Woodhead never reached either figure in a single game.

Vereen may not put up the season stats that many expected, but he has revolutionized the position when the Patriots will need him the most. After all, Rob Gronkowski was likely lost for the season with a right knee injury.

And after Gronkowski went down, Tom Brady started throwing to his safety valve even more. It’s not a giant surprise that Brady’s best games this season have come since Vereen returned. Brady’s never been without his third-down option out of the backfield, whether it was Faulk, Woodhead or even Patrick Pass.

Vereen added nine yards on three carries out of the backfield against the Browns, but his duties as a running back have been secondary to those as a pass catcher since he returned from his broken wrist. Vereen has 373 yards on 40 catches and 186 yards on 38 carries on the ground. Vereen’s position may be listed as “running back,” and he sees most of his time next to or behind Brady, but Vereen is as much Wes Welker as he is Corey Dillon.

There’s not really another running back like him in the NFL. There are players who are more talented that can equally run and catch out of the backfield, but Vereen does a tremendous amount of his work lined up as a wide receiver. And Brady trusts him in that role. He targets him in that role.

Vereen’s most impressive drive came with a minute and 25 seconds left in the third quarter. He caught a 50-yard bomb from Brady, followed by a 16-yard dumpoff and a six-yard run into the end zone. It showcased all of his abilities in three simple plays. Brady and Vereen took the Patriots 72 yards down the field for their first touchdown.

“Shane, the more opportunity he’s gotten, the more he’s been able to do for us,” Belichick said about the latest incarnation of the Patriots’ third-down back. “In his rookie year, in the Kansas City game, [in] limited chances he had that year, he was productive. Last year we had some depth in our backfield. When he got an opportunity to play, he did a good job. He obviously had a great game against Buffalo and then missed the next eight weeks. When he’s been in there, he’s been pretty productive for us. There’s just been times and reasons over the course of his career, for one reason or another, where his opportunities have been somewhat limited. But when he’s been in there — and our other backs have done well too, it’s not like they haven’t been productive. They’ve all taken advantage of their opportunities, they all deserve to play and they’ve all done well for us.”

The Patriots are running out of weapons on offense, so if Gronkowski really is lost for the season and if Aaron Dobson and Kenbrell Thompkins have to miss more time, it may mean seeing even more of Vereen down the stretch.

“It’s just more,” Vereen said about playing in every situation. “It’s just more that I have to focus on, but it’s the game of football and that’s what they asked me to do, so that’s what I’m going to be prepared to do.”

Many, myself included, have wondered whether the Patriots could use Vereen and another running back (not fullback) at the same time. It wouldn’t quite give the Patriots the same deception as using a 12 alignment (one running back and two tight ends), but Vereen has been so effective as a receiver, it might be time to split him out while either Ridley, LeGarrette Blount or Brandon Bolden is in the game.

Vereen doesn’t have unusual size, but he still creates mismatches through his skill set. Opposing teams have to choose whether to have an extra linebacker or defensive back on the third-down back. If it’s a linebacker, Vereen can split out and run routes. If it’s a defensive back, he can carry the ball out of the backfield. Teams have been choosing to put a linebacker on him so far.

It remains to be seen if the Patriots can continue to be as competitive without Gronkowski, but regardless, Vereen will likely continue to be Brady’s No. 1 option out of the backfield.

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