FOXBOROUGH — His left wrist still a little swollen and sporting a fresh surgical scar, Shane Vereen chatted with reporters on Wednesday, the first time he’d done so since breaking the wrist and landing on short-term injured reserve in Week 1 against Buffalo.
“I was ecstatic. Waited a long time,” the Patriots running back said of returning to the lineup Monday night against the Panthers. “Just to be out there with the guys, with the team, and feel a part of the team again and feel I could contribute is awesome.”
Vereen broke a bone in his wrist in the first half of the opener, not only finishing the game but racking up 159 yards from scrimmage, including 23 yards on three carries and 8 on two catches during the winning drive to a field goal.
It wasn’t until the next morning that Vereen realized something might be seriously wrong. After missing 14 games over his first two seasons, the fact that he went into his third season healthy was a huge relief.
To find himself sidelined after just one game hurt, and not just physically.
“Just felt I let the team down in a way, that my role was taken away. It was tough. It was definitely tough,” he said.
Was there a sense of, “oh no, not again”?
“In a sense,” Vereen said, chuckling a bit. “But when it happened, I didn’t think it was as bad as it was, and when it came down to it, you just have to roll with it and take the punches as they come. I was more disappointed that I felt like I was letting the team down.”
After learning from Kevin Faulk and then Danny Woodhead, Vereen has moved into the role of third-down back very nicely.
“Since the middle of last year, he has really emerged and developed into that role,” Tom Brady said. “I think the best part is he really understands the importance and magnitude of that role and takes a lot of pride in it. It’s a hugely important part of our offense.”
Vereen was able to return to practice six weeks after he was placed on IR, but couldn’t play for eight weeks. Since the Patriots’ bye fell on what could have been his first week back, his return was delayed.
“Nobody likes being injured, especially not someone that’s been injured as much as I have,” Vereen said. “So it was tough, especially seeing my team out there and I couldn’t participate. But I’m back now and moving forward, hopefully we’ll be able to get better each week.”
Vereen was thrown right back into the fire against Carolina, on the field for the Patriots’ second offensive play, and played 34 snaps. He finished with eight receptions for 65 yards, both team highs.
“I felt that I could do whatever they asked me to do within the game plan. I just concentrated on what I needed to do personally as my assignment each play,” Vereen said. “I had to kind of calm myself down and take it slow and I really took the game at a slower rate mentally so I didn’t overwhelm myself with the excitement and everything going on.”
Three of the Patriots’ five third-down conversions against Carolina came on passes to Vereen. In the two games he’s played, the Patriots have converted 16 of 30 third-down attempts, or just over 50 percent. In eight games without him, they went 33 for 107 (30.8 percent).
“You’ve seen what he’s capable of in the first week of the year and last week,” Brady said. “He gets single coverage, he gets out. It’s not a typical position because there’s blocking, you have to run the ball, you’ve got to get your blitz pickup, you’ve got to get out on the route, you’ve got to get open, you’ve got to catch the ball, and you’ve got to do something with it.
“He can do all those things, so he is a very, very good football player.”
Monday night marked the first time this season the Patriots’ offense had its full complement of skill players, so the unit remains a work in progress, though it should certainly be headed in the right direction.
“It’s exciting to get everybody back and on the field at the same time,” Vereen said. “We’ve still got a lot of work to do and moving forward hopefully, I think, we’ll be able to put a better product on the field.”
A look at how Vereen provided a lift for the Patriots on Monday, converting a first down on seven of his nine touches:
12:54: 1-yard reception
**11:38: 3-yard reception
*3:58: 17-yard reception
*15:00: 11-yard reception
11:41: 9-yard reception
**1:03: 7-yard reception
*13:44: 7-yard run
**9:58: 6-yard reception
*0:10: 11-yard reception
* — Resulted in first down
** — Third down play that resulted in first down