FOXBOROUGH - The Patriots could get back two key players this week, as RB Shane Vereen (wrist) is eligible to be activated to the 53-man roster off the injured reserve (he was the one player the team designated to return from IR) and CB Aqib Talib (hip) may be healthy enough after four weeks to return as well.
During a Thursday morning press conference, Bill Belichick said the team will push each player this week to see what he 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."
He gave a similar response in 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.
In talking about the Panthers, Belichick commented on Carolina's depth at running back and the number of players, including quarterback Cam Newton, who are effective carrying the ball. The Panthers average 128 rushing yards per game, 10th in the league.
"I think all those guys are good – (Jonathan) Stewart and (DeAngelo) Williams both have real good vision, quickness, they’re shifty, they’re hard guys to tackle, they can run outside, they can run inside," Belichick said. "(Mike) Tolbert’s a downhill guy; he’s in there in a lot of short-yardage and goal-line situations, he gets some tough yards for them, he also plays some as a fullback if you will, with some blocking responsibilities, more than the other two do, but he’s a very good ballcarrier, strong runner.
"They’re all effective in the passing game, screens and check-downs, getting the ball in space, so they have great depth at that position. Of course Newton carries the ball, he’s their second-leading rusher, he’s got a lot of yards too. Between the three backs and the quarterback, a wealth of ballcarriers. I can’t think of another team that has that much depth at that running back position plus a quarterback who runs. And they run the ball a lot, they run it well, they all handle it, they’re all effective. There’s always a fresh guy in there and they always run hard – those guys, they get some tough yards in terms of lowering their shoulder and just pushing the pile and getting a couple of extra yards – they all do that."
And Belichick also got the chance to talk about veteran receiver Steve Smith. Since New England doesn't play Carolina very often, Smith's name isn't brought up much, but he is another one of the players Belichick clearly has a great deal of respect for.
"He’s very competitive, he’s still a tough guy to handle, he’s very strong for his size – he’s a shorter player but he’s stocky, he’s thick, he’s got good balance, he’s tough, he’s hard to bring down," he said of Smith. "He’s got strong hands; you can see him really reach out there and take the ball aggressively, he’s got good quickness and his run after the catch ability is still good. He’s taken some shorter passes and broken some tackles or beat guys in the open field.
"He’s a tough guy to handle – his playing strength, his quickness, his speed, his experience, but it’s just his competitiveness – he’s a tough, competitive player. The bigger the situation, the more he wants to be out there and step up and take the shot, so to speak. I have a lot of respect for Steve Smith and I think he’s still very effective in that role for the Panthers. He’s a good player and he brings a lot of heart and toughness to their team."
Now 34 years old, Smith still has a team-high 42 catches, for 450 yards and three touchdowns.