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Patriots’ running backs find new role early on in preseason

08.21.12 at 4:05 am ET
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FOXBORO ‘€“ The most dynamic offense in the NFL is adding more options.

For years, it’€™s become expected that the Patriots offense is revolved around the air attack, with quarterback Tom Brady at the helm of some of the most potent offenses in team history. And for better or worse, the rushing attack has got a bit of a shaft because of that.

In two preseason games, however, it’€™s starting to become apparent that the running game is getting a makeover, with a little help from the passing game.

In an offense that, last year, was so centered around its depth at wide receiver and even more notably, tight end — where Rob Gronkowski had the most prolific season by someone at the position — it appears that the Patriots are trying even harder to make that offense more potent. In the first preseason game, running backs were actually used more in the passing game than tight ends.  Danny Woodhead, Shane Vereen and Brandon Bolden combined for seven catches on nine targets, bettering their tight end counterparts, who had just four catches on seven targets.

On Monday night against the Eagles, it was more of the same. While the backfield couldn’€™t quite get it going on the ground, mustering just 71 yards on 28 carries as a unit, it was the way it seemed to be more comfortable catching balls out of the backfield that comes off as the most encouraging sign. And with the departure of BenJarvus Green-Ellis to free agency in the offseason, it’€™s an important sign, considering the experience and production left behind.

One of the biggest beneficiaries of this kind of offense is Vereen, who seemed even more comfortable Monday night. With Stevan Ridley hampered by a knee injury after getting banged up in practice this week, the 23-year-old Cal product got a chance to start in his place. The numbers weren’€™t mind-blowing by any means, but it spoke to a trend that seems to be only beginning to gain steam.

Vereen, who was taken with the 56th pick of the 2011 draft by the Patriots, finished Monday’€™s contest with a team-high four catches with five targets for 29 yards, second just behind wide receiver Deion Branch. The play of the night came at the beginning of the second quarter, when Ryan Mallett found Vereen for a 20-yard gain to the Philadelphia 8 that eventually set up the Patriots’€™ first and only touchdown of the game.

In 2011, Vereen barely saw the field, carrying the ball 15 times for 57 yards and not logging a reception. Playing behind Green-Ellis, Ridley and Woodhead, opportunities for playing time were limited, and it showed.

But 2012 offers a new chapter for Vereen. With Green-Ellis out of town, the Patriots have rolled with four backs ‘€“ Ridley, Vereen, Woodhead and undrafted rookie Bolden, who had a rough night himself after fumbling away a punt and almost doing it again later in the game.

A year after logging the second-most rushing attempts on the team behind Green-Ellis, Ridley is seemingly the favorite to get the bulk of the carries this season. Woodhead, who has been consistent in his short stint so far in New England, has cemented himself as a third-down back used mostly in passing situations and also here and there in the return game.

That leaves Vereen, who is unlike any other back on the roster in terms of speed, agility and explosiveness, but has yet to find a defined role. If the two preseason games are any indication, however, that role might just be in the passing game, which could make one of the most lethal offenses in football that much better in a season full of so much expectation. And on a team that seems to be never satisfied with results and looking for ways to improve all of the time, it may just be the perfect fit.

Read More: BenJarvus Green Ellis, Brandon Bolden, Danny Woodhead, Patriots
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