Training Camp Countdown: Part One-Running Backs

I am giddy about the Patriots in 2012.  A month to training camp in July and I cannot get enough. The Red Sox are in last place, the Celtics season is ended by the obnoxious LeBron James yet again, and the Bruins off-season will be quiet unless they get Rick Nash and/or trade Tim Thomas.  For me, it is a burning hunger for all news Patriots.  I want to get to know more about Trevor Scott, Brandon Lloyd, Dont'a Hightower, Chandler Jones, Jake Bequette, and Tavon Wilson. I want to get to know Donte' Stallworth and Jabar Gaffney again.  

Outside of Tom Brady at Quarterback and the Special Teams Specialists trio, questions abound going into training camp next month. I want to see how things shake down on offense and who ends up where on defense.  With a shout-out of Guten Tag all the NFL and Patriots fans in Germany who stumble across this site on the web and a giant Danke for reading, let's jump in to all things Patriots starting with...

Youth is served at running back after going with an undrafted free agent (Ben-Jarvis Green-Ellis), waiver pick-up third down back (Danny Woodhead) and the ERS (elderly rush squad): Kevin Faulk, Sammy Morris, Fred Taylor, et al) the past few years.  Finally, some young legs are in the back-field with Woodhead returning to his usual 3rd down/shotgun role and Green-Ellis replaced with 2011 draft picks Shane Vereen and Stevan Ridley.  The ERS gets represented by 29 year old Joseph Addai over from the Indianapolis Colts' post-Peyton Manning housecleaning.  Also in the mix are a couple of fullbacks (most likely limited to goal line/special teams if either one makes the cut) and undrafted free agent Brandon Bolden (who should not be counted-out as Bill Belichick has repeatedly shown that he has no compunction dropping a draft-pick to keep an UFA. 

All eyes are on Stevan Ridley and Shane Vereen, as they have been handed the keys to the offensive engine.  If Addai is playing, it is not a good sign as Ridley and Vereen are expected to win the job.  I like Bolden's potential as well, but again, not a good sign if he is behind Brady in the backfield week one.  Ridley flashed good instincts, strength and speed, and, unfortunately, some fumble-itis which led to a seat for the playoffs after looking like the best running back since a young Laurence Maroney in 2007. Ridley ran with power, showed good speed and instincts, and seemingly won the job at running back from Green-Ellis until the fumbles caused Belichick to (over-cautiously, I think and thought at the time) move him back on the depth chart.  If Ridley held onto the ball, he may have been entrusted with the keys in the playoffs.  

I think back to the start of the Super Bowl, when pinned back to the goal-line, first-and-ten at the six.  Rather than Tom Brady drop into the end-zone and have the stupid intentional grounding safety to start the game, instead a hand-off to Ridley and he cuts it up past the ten to the twelve yard line for a six yard gain on first down.  Inconsequential? Perhaps not.  Say the Patriots retain possession, even if only to get out to the 30 yard line and cut out a Giants possession, a big momentum-changer, and instead of a 9-0 hole in the first quarter (Giants took the post-safety punt and drove into the end zone in short order) maybe a 0-0 start and a chance to get up and change the game.

Shane Vereen rarely saw the field last season. With Green-Ellis in already at RB and Ridley healthy, he got buried. The Cal product saw the field for a short burst in November against Kansas City and Philadelphia. Having only 15 carries for 57 yards over two mid-season games  is hard to get a handle on someone.  Vereen's story coming out of college was he was smart, had great pass-catching ability, instinctive runner with patience (a must in the Patriots offense) was built with low-to-the ground power, and some speed.  The Patriots need speed at running back. No doubt.  I am hoping that the Josh McDaniels offense re-inserts the running back screen this season ("Screen to Vereen!" That's what I want to hear each week) as it is such a pass-protection weapon in slowing down the pass rush and keeping defensive players away from Tom Brady.

Vereen has the skills to make the screen game deadly again (really, did any defense care if Green-Ellis went out for a screen? He had hands of stone and no burst in the open field).  Add in the powerful running and big play ability with him and Ridley in the backfield and the Patriots may actually be able to move the ball on the ground.  Not being able to, or having the confidence to, commit to the ground in the playoffs has hurt this team too much in the past.  Since Maroney carried them to the Super Bowl in 2007 ( for the record: 3 playoff games: 61 rushes, 280 yards,  3 touchdowns, and he returned kicks. Yes, the 14 rushes for 36 yard turd-fest in the Super Bowl was a downer,  but in the first two games against Jacksonville and San Diego were fantastic: 22 for 122 versus Jax; 25 for 122 versus a tough San Diego defense), no one (Maroney included) has been a threat out of the backfield.  Going back to 2004 is where the Patriots have to go for that stud running game (Corey Dillon, come on down!). 

Hopefully, this is the year that the running game changes with a great sophomore effort from their two 2011 high picks and becomes a strength of the team again.  Tom Brady is, and will be, great, but the more help for him the better.  Ridley and Vereen have the ball, let's hope the don't fumble.