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Given a second chance, Vereen carries himself well

By Greg A. Bedard
Globe Staff / August 21, 2012
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FOXBOROUGH — His final line of 20 yards on 10 carries won’t wow anyone.

It shouldn’t.

But make no mistake, running back Shane Vereen helped himself in the Patriots exhibition game with the Eagles Monday night at Gillette Stadium.

He was given an opening by Stevan Ridley to be New England’s lead running back to start the season, and Vereen held his own.

After the Patriots used a second-round pick in the 2011 draft on Vereen, his rookie season was basically a waste.

His contract didn’t get done in time for the start of training camp after the lockout, so he missed a few valuable days.

And then during his second practice, Vereen pulled his hamstring and was largely unseen until he rushed for 39 yards on eight carries in mop-up time against the Chiefs Nov. 21.

Vereen missed the final month of the season when the hamstring acted up again.

The Patriots had to wonder if Vereen was ever going to have an impact. Especially after the start of this training camp, when his play was uninspiring.

Vereen was a standout sprinter in high school and then in college at Cal. But he rarely showed the type of explosion that you would expect to see. It even appeared like undrafted running back Brandon Bolden was ahead of Vereen on the depth chart. Bolden had outplayed Vereen.

And then things started to change in the exhibition opener against the Saints.

He had 64 yards on 11 carries (5.8 average) and looked to be the best back on the team.

But circumstances are everything in this game, and Vereen did all of his damage in the second half long after the Saints starters and even backups had departed the game.

Patriots coaches didn’t seem impressed. You would figure after output like that, Vereen would leap up the depth chart and get more chances with the first team.

Yet in the first two padded practices following the game, Ridley was in command and comfortably the lead back. Vereen was still trying to get carries with the backups.

And then Ridley fumbled Aug. 14.

The ghosts of Ridley’s two fumbles late last season — which landed him firmly on the bench through the Super Bowl — had reappeared and the coaches weren’t happy.

Vereen got his number called in the very next practice, and the competition we all figured to see followed.

Break No. 2 to Vereen happened Thursday when Ridley injured his hamstring near the right knee. Ridley did not play against the Eagles, so it was Vereen’s show.

Vereen didn’t blow anybody away because the blocking in front of him was terrible. Vereen got a dose of what Ridley saw against the Saints when he had 40 yards on eight carries against New Orleans’ top defenders.

Vereen’s output wasn’t flashy, but he showed some important traits that should keep him in this battle for the top spot.

He rarely danced in the backfield and picked the right holes. He fell forward and picked up a few more yards to turn a 1- or 2-yard gain into 3 and 4 yards.

Vereen picked up 20 yards on a screen pass that was perfectly called by offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels against an Eagles’ blitz.

But Vereen was far from perfect.

He was caught from behind on the screen by a defensive lineman on a play that should have gone for a touchdown.

On the third play from scrimmage, Vereen didn’t read the block of center Ryan Wendell correctly on a screen pass and only picked up 4 yards.

On the third drive, Vereen ran into the back of guard Dan Connolly when a hole was open.

So, no, Vereen didn’t knock it out of the park. But he hit a few clean singles. And when it comes to replacing starter BenJarvus Green-Ellis, who signed in free agency with the Bengals, that’s good enough.

The Patriots will always be a passing team with Tom Brady at quarterback. What they need is a running back to keep the defense honest and respect play-action passes. They need a back who will pick up the hard yards when they need it.

Basically, that’s what Vereen has done. And he’s now healthy, and hasn’t fumbled.

That means the competition is back on between Vereen and Ridley, just like it should have been all along.

Greg A. Bedard can be reached at gbedard@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @gregabedard.

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