FOXBOROUGH — The Patriots could be getting two key players back for their upcoming two-game stretch against the Panthers and Broncos, as signs point to Shane Vereen and Aqib Talib returning.
Vereen, who broke his left wrist early in the team’s season-opening win against the Bills but still had 159 yards from scrimmage, was placed on injured reserve/designated to return, which meant he had to miss a minimum of eight games. The third-year back was eligible to return last week, but since that was the Patriots’ bye, he can return Monday night against the Panthers.
Talib suffered a hip injury in the second half of the Week 6 win over the Saints. Though he was back on the practice field less than a week later, it was obvious he was very limited. Since then, he’s looked smoother during the snippets of practice reporters are allowed to see.
During a Thursday morning news conference, Patriots coach Bill Belichick was asked for a progress report on Vereen and Talib, and said the team will push the players this week to see what they can handle.
“It’s good to have him back on the field,” Belichick said of Vereen. “This will really be an opportunity for us to evaluate this week kind of where he is, give him some harder assignments and see how he’s doing. He’s been able to be active and participate, but I’d say it will be a higher level of competition for him this week on the practice field, as it should be, gradually escalate the intensity of it and see how it goes.”
Belichick gave a similar response with regard to Talib’s progress.
“He’s continued to progress and we’ll keep doing, as they can tolerate it, do more, and evaluate how they do at a little bit higher level, and if that goes well ramp it up, and see where we are as we go through the week. Same thing we do every week,” Belichick said.
Though he didn’t say he’ll be back in uniform Monday night, the fact that Talib met with reporters in the locker room Thursday for the first time since suffering his injury was a positive sign.
Asked if he feels like he’s ready to play, Talib said, “Practice has been good, man. Day to day, trying to get back.”
The sixth-year cornerback was playing at an exceptionally high level before his injury. ProFootballFocus.com had Talib as its top-graded corner through the first six weeks of the season, and despite missing a month, he’s still tied for third in the NFL with four interceptions. When Talib got hurt, he was in the process of shutting out Saints All-Pro tight end Jimmy Graham.
Talib said the timing of the Patriots’ bye week was vital, not just for himself but everyone on the team. And he sounded eager to get back onto the field.
“Any time you have to watch your guys go to war without you, man, that’s the worst thing in the world,” said Talib, adding that he liked the way his teammates played while he was rehabbing.
“I was their No. 1 fan. Just texting and trying to help as much as I can, but those guys came and played their butts off for as long as I was out. I don’t even know how long.”
Talib has focused on getting his fundamentals and technique back in practice.
“He’s an unbelievable player,” defensive end Rob Ninkovich said. “We’re happy to have him on the field with us. The guys that stepped up when he was gone, they did a great job, but having him back is just going to help us.”
The Patriots do not have to make Vereen available to talk to the media until he has been activated to the 53-man roster, and if form follows, they won’t make that transaction until Saturday or Sunday night. So although it appears he’s on track to make his return this week, he won’t be heard from until postgame Monday at the earliest.
Earlier this week, offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels said of Vereen, “As soon as he is ready and able to help us and we are able to play him, he will have a role in the game . . . We’ll look forward to having him back.”
The Patriots certainly could use Vereen on third downs. They converted 11 of 20 third-down chances (55 percent) in Buffalo in Week 1, but just 33 of 107 (30.8 percent) in games without him.
Having Rob Gronkowski back and close to 100 percent has helped, as the Patriots’ performance against the Steelers Nov. 3 showed, but Vereen would be a big addition as well, as he is the best pass-catching running back on the roster.