AFC East: Shane Vereen

ESPN.com's fantasy football staff has unveiled its top 200 player rankings and here is a look at where the top Patriots fall in the list:

35. TE Rob Gronkowski (third at position)
58. RB Shane Vereen (26th at position)
61. WR Julian Edelman (24th at position)
66. RB Stevan Ridley (28th at position)
97. WR Danny Amendola (42nd at position)
111. QB Tom Brady (12th at position)
136. WR Aaron Dobson (51st at position)
148. Patriots defense/special teams (ninth as a unit)
152. K Stephen Gostkowski (second at position)
170. WR Brandon LaFell (57th at position)

As the piece notes, these rankings are based on a 10-team ESPN standard league with 16-player rosters, starting one quarterback, two running backs, two wide receivers, one tight end, one flex (RB/WR/TE), a team defense and a kicker.

Any objections?

Draft & free agency: Running back

February, 21, 2014
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With free agency to begin March 11, and the draft from May 8-10, one thing NFL teams generally do at this time is marry the two to better assess the best approach to filling potential needs. For example, if a team knows it’s a deep draft for top-quality offensive tackles (2014 is such), it might be less inclined to be as aggressive at that position in free agency.

This was a general point made by several coaches and executives at the NFL combine, such as Carolina Panthers head coach Ron Rivera and Atlanta Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff.

With this in mind, our plan is to continue to look at each position in the coming days through a similar lens.

Today's position: Running back

Draft: The class is deep but not top-heavy, as it's possible there isn't a running back selected in the first round. Part of that is tied to a general de-valuing of the position by teams. NFL Network draft analyst Mike Mayock said, "The good news in this draft and in the last few is that if you can get in the second, third, fourth round, and find different flavors of running backs; you'll see some teams that will draft two or three running backs in one or two drafts, just so you can have a big back and a third down change of pace guy and I think that's where the league has gone and I think that's where it's going to continue to go." Boston College's Andre Williams is Mayock's fourth-rated rusher.

Free agency: Five-year veteran LeGarrette Blount is part of a deep group that includes Knowshon Moreno (Broncos), Donald Brown (Colts), Darren McFadden (Raiders), Maurice Jones-Drew (Jaguars), Dexter McCluster (Chiefs), Rashard Mendenhall (Cardinals), Willis McGahee (Browns), James Starks (Packers) and Ben Tate (Texans), among others. This has been more of a buyer's market in recent years and 2014 is likely to be the same.

Patriots perspective: Blount came on strong at the end of the 2013 season and bringing back him would seemingly be a priority; a two-year deal in the $3-4 million range is one projection of the market to do so. With Stevan Ridley and Shane Vereen entering the final years of their contracts, it wouldn't be a surprise if the Patriots draft a running back to build depth and with 2015 in mind.

Sharing Patriots halftime thoughts

December, 29, 2013
12/29/13
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FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Sharing thoughts at halftime of the New England Patriots' regular-season finale against the Bills (New England leads 16-3):

Mankins' toughness is evident: When starting left guard Logan Mankins was helped off the field in the second quarter, it was natural to assume it was serious. Mankins is one of the toughest Patriots players, once playing on a torn ACL. But after going to the locker room, Mankins soon returned to action. It very well might be serious, but they don't come much tougher than Mankins.

Dobson foot injury could lead to Collie call: With rookie receiver Aaron Dobson limping off the field in the first quarter (and not returning), it moved Kenbrell Thompkins up the depth chart into some two-receiver packages. Also, Danny Amendola played in some two-receiver packages along with Julian Edelman after opening the game exclusively as the No. 3. One thought: If Dobson's injury is serious enough to keep him out, it could lead to a quick call back for Austin Collie.

Edelman's milestone: Edelman has arguably been the Patriots' most consistent offensive player this season, and he hit both the 100-catch and 1,000-yard receiving marks today. The spark he is providing the offense is Wes Welker-like.

Wet ball a factor: With the game being played under heavy rain, ballhandling has been shaky on both sides. New England's Shane Vereen and LeGarrette Blount had fumbles, both of which were recovered by the Patriots. Amendola dropped a pass. It looked like one long throw might have slipped out of Tom Brady's hand.

Style of play reminds of 2004 season: When the Patriots run the ball like they have today, and also last Sunday against Baltimore, it brings back memories of the 2004 season when Corey Dillon was rumbling through opposing defenses. Dillon was a big back, and while Blount is not in that class, his size stands out.

Credit to the defense: The Patriots are piecing things together on defense, but credit to the unit for coming up with the stops in the critical situations (e.g. fourth-and-1). It doesn't always look pretty, and the Bills have helped in some areas with sloppy play, but the New England defense has done its part so far today.

Bills get the ball: The Bills won the opening toss and elected to defer, so they will get the ball at the start of the second half.

Solder, Vereen, Thompkins active

December, 29, 2013
12/29/13
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FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Starting New England Patriots left tackle Nate Solder and running back Shane Vereen are both active for today's game against the Buffalo Bills, which is the most notable takeaway from the team's list of inactive players.

Solder missed last Sunday's win against the Ravens with a concussion, and Vereen was limited to seven snaps with a groin injury in the game.

Also, receiver Kenbrell Thompkins (hip) is active after missing the past three games.

The full list of inactives:

DE Jake Bequette
OL Chris Barker
DT Isaac Sopoaga
CB Alfonzo Dennard
S Devin McCourty
LB Steve Beauharnais
WR Josh Boyce

ANALYSIS: Sopoaga is a healthy scratch for the second straight week. He has slipped to fourth on the defensive tackle depth chart behind Sealver Siliga, Chris Jones, and Joe Vellano, and the Patriots need the depth in other areas ... Dennard was a game-time decision last week (shoulder/knee) and he gets the rest today; hence the promotion of practice squad cornerback Justin Green on Saturday.

Bills inactives:

QB EJ Manuel (knee)
WR Stevie Johnson (personal)
WR Cordell Roberson
RB Ronnie Wingo
DB Brandon Smith
G Mark Asper
G Antoine McClain

Sharing Patriots halftime thoughts

December, 22, 2013
12/22/13
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BALTIMORE -- Sharing some halftime thoughts of the New England Patriots' game against the Ravens (New England leads 17-0):

One of Patriots' best halves of the season: This has been, across the board, some of the best football the Patriots have played this season. All three phases are getting it done. On offense, a commitment to the ground game has stood out. On defense, the turnovers are back. And the special teams coverage has been outstanding, sparked by captain Matthew Slater. For the Ravens, quarterback Joe Flacco doesn't look completely comfortable.

Replay review critical for Patriots: Danny Amendola's late second-quarter fumble was overturned on replay, which was crucial for the Patriots because it could have been a momentum-swinging turn of events -- the Ravens getting the ball on a short field and then at the start of the third quarter. Turnovers are such a big part of the action, as we saw in the first quarter for the Patriots (Logan Ryan interception sets up the second touchdown).

Red-zone struggles corrected: One of the big storylines entering the game was the Patriots' red-zone performance (1 of 4 vs. Miami). They are 2 of 2 today, with a power running game (LeGarrette Blount) and then a well-designed pass play (Shane Vereen) the successful formula.

A lot of penalties: Ron Winter's crew has been busy tonight. It's always difficult to tell while watching live if all the calls are warranted, but our general preference are games with fewer flags. It seemed like a long half because of it, with little flow. This reminds us of the 2009 Patriots-Ravens regular-season game, in Foxborough, in which Winter was also the referee.

Injuries to monitor: Vereen left in the second quarter with a groin injury and has not returned. Brandon Bolden has assumed his role as the top "passing back." ... Safety Steve Gregory left in the second quarter with what looked like a right knee/leg injury. It looked signficant, and rookie Duron Harmon took his place. ... Linebacker Dont'a Hightower left the game briefly in the second quarter, but returned.

Ravens get the ball: The Patriots had called heads at the opening toss and it came up tails, with the Ravens deferring the choice to the second half. So the Ravens get the ball to open the second half.

Quick-hit thoughts after third quarter

December, 8, 2013
12/08/13
3:50
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FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Entering the final quarter of play, the New England Patriots trail the Cleveland Browns 19-11. Passing along quick-hit notes and observations from the third quarter:

1. Browns won't go away. The Browns offense struck first in the third quarter, as quarterback Jason Campbell hooked up with tight end Gary Barnidge for a 40-yard score. On the play, cornerback Aqib Talib was flagged for an illegal use of hands to the face penalty, though it was declined. The Browns' two-point conversion try failed. After a Patriots field goal late in the quarter, Campbell hit talented second-year wide receiver Josh Gordon for an 80-yard score, as he was able to beat Talib in man coverage.

2. Gronkowski leaves game. Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski left the game after catching a pass and taking a shot directly to his right leg. He appeared to be in substantial pain and was immediately carted from the field. If the injury turns out to be as serious at it looked, it would be a critical loss for the Patriots offense, which had begun to click in recent weeks. Gronkowski is out for the rest of the game.

3. Boyce stepping up. With injuries to rookies Aaron Dobson and Kenbrell Thompkins, Josh Boyce has been thrust into a larger offensive role. He's shown up well with three catches for 49 yards.

4. Offense answers late. It was the Shane Vereen show late in the third quarter, as he followed up a 50-yard catch with another catch and then a 6-yard rushing score. The drive was the Patriots' best, by far, of the day, and may be just what the team needs to kick-start a fourth-quarter comeback. The Patriots went for two following the touchdown, with Tom Brady hooking up with Julian Edelman to make it a one-score game.

5. Penalty box. The following Patriots were flagged for penalties during the third quarter: center Ryan Wendell (holding) and cornerback Aqib Talib (illegal use of hands to the face; declined).

Upon Further Review: Patriots Week 13

December, 2, 2013
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FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- A review of four hot issues following the New England Patriots' 34-31 win over the Houston Texans:

[+] EnlargeJulian Edelman
Troy Taormina/USA TODAY SportsJulian Edelman has 18 catches for 211 yards and two touchdowns over the past two games.
Run defense springs leaks again: The Patriots are struggling to stop the run, as season-ending injuries to defensive tackles Vince Wilfork and Tommy Kelly, as well as linebacker Jerod Mayo, have cut deep. The struggles against the Texans seemed more fundamental, such as getting off blocks and tackling. The Texans rushed for four touchdowns in the game after entering the day with two rushing touchdowns on the season.

Ridley's uncertain future as the lead back: Lead running back Stevan Ridley was a healthy scratch after losing his third fumble in three games Nov. 24 against the Broncos. If Ridley doesn't dress for a game against the two-win Texans, it raises questions as to what type of role he might have down the stretch and in the playoffs. It seems fair to say that his time as the Patriots' lead back has officially reached a crossroads. Shane Vereen took the majority of running back snaps (41 of 70) against the Texans, playing in more traditional sets as he is now positioned to be the team's top option.

Banged-up receivers: Rookie receiver Aaron Dobson was inactive with a foot injury and then his replacement, Kenbrell Thompkins, left the game in the second quarter with a hip injury, and after attempting to play through it, he left the game for good after playing just 15 snaps. That thinned depth at receiver, leaving Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola as the top options, followed by rookie Josh Boyce and special teams captain Matthew Slater. The shortage at the position limits options in terms of personnel groupings and could be something to address if it's clear that Dobson and Thompkins will miss more time.

Edelman positioned for a lucrative payday: Edelman had a big day (nine catches, 101 yards) and upped his season total to 70 receptions, which earns him the maximum incentive in his contract of $250,000. There's good news and bad news for the Patriots in this area. The good news is that Edelman has become a key member of the passing attack, with Tom Brady joking that his nickname for him is "Minitron." The bad news? Edelman is scheduled for unrestricted free agency after the season, and the more he produces, the tougher it could be for the Patriots to retain him.
After fumbling in three straight games, New England Patriots running back Stevan Ridley was a healthy scratch for his team's Week 13 matchup with the Houston Texans on Sunday afternoon.

Following the 34-31 win, during which New England accumulated 87 rushing yards on 27 carries, Patriots coach Bill Belichick offered a simple reason why Ridley was declared inactive for the first time since his rookie season in 2011.

[+] EnlargeLeGarrette Blount
Thomas Campbell/USA TODAY SportsLeGarrette Blount led the Patriots with 12 carries and 44 rushing yards.
"Because there were 46 other players active ahead of him," he said.

The Patriots turned to a four-back attack in Ridley's absence, as LeGarrette Blount led the way with 12 carries for 44 yards and a touchdown, and Shane Vereen added 75 total yards and a receiving touchdown. Brandon Bolden had four total touches, and fullback James Develin scored the first touchdown of his career.

The group drew praise from quarterback Tom Brady after the game.

"LeGarrette ran really hard. Shane's doing a great job for us coming back off being out for a while, and Brandon got a lot of touches, too," he said. "So all those guys contributed. We're going to need them all, that's one of the strengths of our team."

What remains to be seen is how long it will take for Ridley to work his way back into the lineup, as he was benched following his fumble in the first quarter last week.

He's proven to be one of the better between-the-tackles rushers in the NFL when on the field, but ball security has been a problem. He has nine fumbles in 42 career regular-season games, six of which have been lost.

The Patriots next take on the Cleveland Browns, one of seven teams to enter Sunday allowing fewer than 100 yards rushing per game.

That matchup might lead the team to work Ridley back into the mix as they aim to further hit their stride down the stretch.

Double Coverage: Patriots at Texans

November, 29, 2013
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Andre Johnson and Chandler JonesUSA Today SportsAndre Johnson, left, and the Texans hope to surprise Chandler Jones and the Patriots.
HOUSTON -- The last time the Houston Texans faced the New England Patriots during the regular season, Houston was 11-1 and the hottest team in the league. To celebrate their youthful camaraderie, they ordered letterman jackets, the kind high school teams wear, and the jackets happened to come in right before the Patriots game.

That game marked a turning point for the Texans.

The timing of the jackets had nothing to do with the opponent; former Texans Connor Barwin and Shaun Cody were simply trying to create a tradition. That they lost so badly just after unveiling them turned the jackets into a punch line.

The Patriots won 42-14, and the Texans finished their season having lost three of their last four games. That meant losing the home-field advantage that seemed theirs before that game and led to another meeting with the Patriots in the divisional round of the playoffs. New England won again, 41-28.

It was a lesson for the Texans in what it takes to be a great team.

Heading into this season, many thought the Texans were positioned to be one of the top teams in the NFL. The Patriots seemed poised for a down year, by their standards, but here we are in Week 13 and they sit in their usual spot atop the AFC East.

ESPN.com Texans reporter Tania Ganguli and Patriots reporter Mike Reiss discuss the matchup.

Ganguli: Mike, how has the loss of so many of his top targets from last season impacted Patriots quarterback Tom Brady?

Reiss: We saw it impact Brady more significantly through the first eight games. But things have started to click the past two games, and it’s no coincidence that it coincides with tight end Rob Gronkowski's reaching a new level of comfort since his return Oct. 20, and running back Shane Vereen's coming off the injured reserve list. With those two joining receivers Aaron Dobson, Julian Edelman, Danny Amendola and Kenbrell Thompkins, the pass-catching corps has been as stocked as we’ve seen all season.

I know it’s been a down year for the Texans, but is J.J. Watt still creating havoc? Is that defense still tough?

Ganguli: Watt is still creating havoc. He has 9.5 sacks, three forced fumbles and four passes defensed. He is someone opposing offenses must track on every play. The Texans' defense has played well, but it has holes. On Sunday, the Jaguars had success with the matchup of receiver Cecil Shorts against cornerback Brandon Harris in the slot. Injuries to middle linebacker Brian Cushing and strong safety Danieal Manning have been particularly damaging. The Texans have statistically been much better with Cushing than without him since he was drafted. Their attempt to add some mental toughness with Ed Reed didn’t work as they had hoped, so two young players are starting at safety -- Shiloh Keo at free safety and D.J. Swearinger at strong safety. Swearinger is the Texans’ rookie second-round pick. He will be really good, but right now he’s learning a lot about playing at this level. They haven’t allowed a lot of yards, but have allowed too many points and not created enough turnovers.

Speaking of turnovers, as I watched Sunday night’s Patriots game against the Broncos, it seemed every time I looked up the Patriots had either committed or forced a turnover. What did you make of that? Was it an aberration?

Reiss: The forced turnovers were the norm, as the Patriots recently ended a streak of 36 games with at least one forced turnover (Nov. 18 vs. Carolina). The Patriots' committing turnovers was a little more out of character, although one of the pressing issues facing the club is what to do with lead running back Stevan Ridley (3 lost fumbles in the past three games). The Patriots are traditionally strong in turnover differential, and this season is no different, as they are plus-8 with 23 takeaways and 15 giveaways.

I know this probably comes out of left field, but how is the playing surface at Reliant Stadium? Patriots followers remember the last visit, in 2009, when Wes Welker tore his ACL. I saw a recent game, and it looks like there are patches of grass on the field with noticeable seams in certain parts.

Ganguli: Not out of left field at all. If the game you saw was the Texans’ Nov. 3 Sunday night game against the Indianapolis Colts, this was a major topic of conversation that night. The field looked pretty bad, mostly because there was a college game played on the same grass that week. They replaced the center of the field, but the outer grass was a mess. The University of Houston has played five games at Reliant Stadium this season while its stadium is being renovated. It has played most of them on field turf. The Cougars will play again on Friday morning, and none of the grass will be replaced between that game and the Texans-Patriots game Sunday. I believe the thinking is that will give it enough time to recover. Something to watch, though.

Let’s talk more about defense to wrap up here. Will Aqib Talib be assigned to Andre Johnson on Sunday? How do you think he’ll fare?

Reiss: That would make a lot of sense, as Talib has often been assigned the opponent’s top receiver. After a rocky game Nov. 18 against Carolina and Steve Smith, he was very good this past Sunday night against Demaryius Thomas in the 34-31 win against the Broncos. Talib has been key for the pass defense. Meanwhile, the loss of key players to season-ending injuries (defensive tackles Vince Wilfork and Tommy Kelly, and linebacker Jerod Mayo) has hurt the run defense at times, such as in the Broncos game. But they played a 4-2-5 nickel for most of the game, and I don’t think that will be as much of a factor against the Texans. The Patriots will probably be in their base defense more often, and they played well against the Panthers’ tough running attack in that package.

One thing I think Patriots followers would be interested to hear is what has happened to the Texans? How could a team go so quickly from the AFC divisional round of the playoffs and talking about “letterman” jackets to vying for the No. 1 pick in the draft?

Ganguli: Even with some of the missteps in the offseason, it would have been difficult to foresee this. There are a lot of issues, but I'll focus on the quarterback situation. The biggest mystery is what happened to quarterback Matt Schaub. He was never on the level of Brady, but he gave the Texans what they needed. He was consistent and productive. He actually played really well in leading comebacks against the San Diego Chargers and Tennessee Titans this season. That seems so long ago. The Texans' turnover margin has been among the worst in the league all season, and Schaub was part of that. He became the first quarterback in NFL history to throw pick-sixes in four consecutive games. He threw one on the first pass of the game against the San Francisco 49ers, and that game marked the only time this season Schaub played poorly from start to finish. There were myriad other problems, but Schaub lost his starting spot when he suffered a foot and ankle injury in Week 6. First-year quarterback Case Keenum took over, but his play hasn't meant victories. In his first three starts, he played well in the first half and not so well in the second half. His most recent game, against Jacksonville, was his worst of the season. Keenum threw for 169 yards, no touchdowns and one interception.

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W2W4: Five things for Patriots-Panthers

November, 15, 2013
11/15/13
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By the time the New England Patriots next take the field for game action, it will have been a long time since they last played.

Fifteen days between regular season games is uncommon -- it’s happened only once before to Bill Belichick during his two tenures as an NFL head coach -- but that’s precisely how long the Patriots have to prepare for their upcoming opponent, the Carolina Panthers.

When the regular-season schedule was released, this game was naturally of note because it was the Patriots' only appearance on "Monday Night Football" (8:30 p.m. ET, ESPN).

But few foresaw that this Monday’s matchup would rank as such an intriguing game. But that is the case now, with the 7-2 Patriots taking on the hard-charging Panthers, winners of five straight games and now very much in the thick of the NFC South race.

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A five-game winning streak, highlighted by a Week 10 win against the 49ers, has the Panthers thinking big and aspiring to reach the playoffs for the first time with Cam Newton under center. While they’ve done much to win over a strong contingent of NFL onlookers, some still doubt Carolina has what it takes to sustain success.

Whichever team comes out on top on Monday will make a strong statement leading into the stretch run of the regular season.

Here’s what we’ll be watching for.

1. Matching up with the front seven. Tom Brady is on the record with how he feels about the Panthers' front seven, declaring it to be as good as any other in the NFL. Carolina has been one of the most difficult defenses to run against and ranks near the top in sacks this season, generating 29 through the first nine games. The biggest test for the Patriots could be slowing down the bookend rushers for Carolina, Greg Hardy and Charles Johnson, each of whom totaled double-digits sacks last season. The center of the front seven is linebacker Luke Kuechly, who is certain to be around the ball all evening long. The Patriots' offensive line will have its work cut out with this group.

2. Testing the Panthers' secondary. Yes, the Panthers' defense has been sensational this season, but a little context is worth examining as it relates to their opponents. The question we have is whether this group has faced an elite passing attack, something that -- at least in Week 9 -- we saw the Patriots capable of becoming. The names aren’t particularly familiar in Carolina’s secondary, but it’s a blend of both veteran and young contributors that the Patriots need to test on Monday night. With the potential return of Shane Vereen, the Patriots could have their full complement of skill players on the field for the first time this season.

[+] EnlargeShane Vereen
Kevin Hoffman/USA TODAY SportsShane Vereen rushed for 101 yards in Week 1 against the Bills.
3. Injury headlines. There are two players that highlight the injury storylines this week: cornerback Aqib Talib (hip) and Vereen (wrist). Talib has not played since Week 6 and has practiced nearly every day since. He hasn’t suited up for a game, however, leaving the Patriots without a top secondary player. It would appear that he’s closing in on a return in the not-too-distant future. As it relates to Vereen, he’s eligible to play on Monday night though he has still not been activated from the short-term injured reserve list. The Patriots could activate Vereen all the way up until Monday afternoon. If he does play, he’ll give the Patriots their best option out of the backfield in the team’s hurry up approach, as was showcased during a career day back in Week 1.

4. Containing Cam. Not to be overlooked (by any means) is Newton, a tantalizing talent that can hurt a defense with his arm and his legs. Newton’s completion percentage has risen to a career-best 62.7 percent thus far in 2013, while he's also posting his best ever quarterback rating. He’s thrown eight picks already, however, including three in his past two games, so the Patriots will look to take advantage of his mistakes and extend their streak of games with a turnover forced to 37. At the goal line, Newton is one of many options the Panthers have to plunge into the end zone, and his ability to use his legs makes the play-action passing game effective for Carolina, too.

5. Fast starts. The Patriots always emphasize starting fast, but that will be critical this Monday. The Panthers have not allowed a first-quarter touchdown in 12 straight regular season games and have surrendered the fewest points in the first quarter of any team this season. The Patriots' offense will try to carry over the momentum from the past three halves, as they’ve scored at least 24 points in each one of them. Carolina’s passing offense isn’t particularly explosive, making it unlikely for the two to engage in a shootout, but the Panthers' defense is stingy enough that falling behind early is a recipe for disaster for any opponent. Early efficiency will be key for the Patriots.

Upon Further Review: Patriots Week 9

November, 4, 2013
11/04/13
8:00
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FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- A review of four hot issues following the New England Patriots' 55-31 win over the Pittsburgh Steelers:

[+] EnlargeStevan Ridley
Greg M. Cooper/USA TODAY SportsStevan Ridley had a season-high 26 carries against the Steelers.
The latest on the injury front: Four players didn't finish the game: No. 4 receiver Austin Collie (knee), starting defensive end Rob Ninkovich (foot), starting safety Steve Gregory (right thumb/wrist) and starting cornerback Alfonzo Dennard (unknown). Ninkovich appears to have avoided serious injury, and Dennard looked to be moving OK in the locker room despite coming off on the final drive. The injuries to Collie and Gregory appear more serious. With Collie hurt, the Patriots have rookies Kenbrell Thompkins and Josh Boyce as candidates to bump up the depth chart. Rookie Duron Harmon would potentially elevate into a starting role to replace Gregory.

Enjoying a long break on the bye: With the Patriots' bye week up next, Bill Belichick rewarded players by giving them six straight days off, from Wednesday to Monday. Part of the consideration is that the team's next game is on ESPN's "Monday Night Football" in Carolina on Nov. 18. But had the Patriots not improved to 7-2 with their best offensive performance of the season, it's hard to imagine Belichick being so generous to the players, who erupted when they received the news in the postgame locker room.

Riding with Ridley: Is it possible that fans and media members saw something that the coaching staff didn't when it came to running back Stevan Ridley? One of the more puzzling questions surrounding the team in recent weeks was why Ridley, who averaged 35.8 snaps per game in 2012, was being utilized so sparingly (20 snaps versus Dolphins; 28 snaps versus Jets) despite looking like the team's best option when he was on the field. On Sunday, Ridley played a season-high 51 snaps (including penalties) and turned in his first 100-yard performance of the season.

Timeline for Talib, Vereen & Co.: Top cornerback Aqib Talib, who hasn't played since injuring his hip Oct. 13 against the Saints, could be primed for a return Nov. 18 in Carolina; he's practiced on a limited basis the last two weeks. Meanwhile, running back Shane Vereen is eligible to return in Carolina and he is expected to be ready to play after returning to practice last week. So the Patriots could be getting two of their better players back. The status of first-year defensive tackle Armond Armstead, who is on the reserve/non-football illness list, also bears watching as he is eligible to return to practice up to Week 11.

Brady backs benched RB Stevan Ridley

September, 10, 2013
9/10/13
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FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady pumped up running back Stevan Ridley on Tuesday, putting his support behind the third-year veteran who was benched after his second-quarter fumble in the season opener.

“I know Stevan is a very mentally tough kid. I love having him back there. I love giving the ball to him and watching him run,” he said.

Brady also pointed out that Ridley wasn’t the only player to make a mistake Sunday.

“We fumbled a snap on the goal-line, I threw an interception; you have to be able to bounce back from those things,” he said. “Football is not necessarily a game of perfect. It’s just that you try to limit what your bad plays are, so they’re not really bad plays, or really critical plays in the game.”

How Ridley bounces back Thursday will be watched closely. With running back Shane Vereen (wrist) expected to be out of action for a few weeks, and running back Brandon Bolden (knee) missing the season opener, depth is thin at the position and Ridley could be thrust right back into his top role.

Ridley, who after Sunday’s season-opener took the blame for his performance, politely declined comment in the locker room Tuesday.

Quick-hit thoughts on Vereen surgery

September, 9, 2013
9/09/13
3:15
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Sunday's Patriots season opener was supposed to be a momentum-builder for third-year running back Shane Vereen, as he was a standout performer. But now comes news (first reported by Jay Glazer of Fox Sports) that he broke a small bone in his wrist, was scheduled for surgery today, and is expected to be out for a few weeks.

So let's look at where the Patriots go from here.

Vereen, as we know, is the team's top "passing back," which is the role previously held by Kevin Faulk and Danny Woodhead. In addition to his work as a rusher (101 yards Sunday) and pass-catcher (7 receptions, 58 yards), the "passing back" is also relied upon heavily in pass protection. That's where the Patriots might miss Vereen most Thursday against a Jets defense that often nicely disguises its intentions pre-snap.

Second-year player Brandon Bolden (5-foot-11, 220 pounds) would be a top candidate to replace Vereen, but he didn't play Sunday because of a knee injury. So that leaves recently re-signed veteran Leon Washington (5-8, 192) as the potential next man up in the "passing back" role. The only other options are Stevan Ridley (5-11, 220) and LeGarrette Blount (6-0, 250), and they aren't as elusive in the passing game.

Without Vereen, the Patriots lose a big-play threat. The team had nine "chunk plays" of 19 yards or more on Sunday, and the speedy Vereen had three of them -- runs of 21, 20 and 19 yards. He also played more than any running back (56 snaps, including penalties), showing that he can be a factor on all four downs (he also played on punt coverage and kickoff return units).

At a time when the Patriots' passing offense is struggling to find its groove, and it also might not have receiver Danny Amendola (groin), this is a tough blow.

Vereen had really been coming on.

Upon Further Review: Patriots Week 1

September, 9, 2013
9/09/13
12:00
PM ET
A review of four hot issues from the New England Patriots' 23-21 season-opening win over the Buffalo Bills:

[+] EnlargeStevan Ridley
Bill Wippert/AP PhotoPatriots running back Stevan Ridley did not get off to the stellar start he'd hoped for in Week 1.
Ridley’s place on running back depth chart: In 2012, Stevan Ridley played a team-high 45 percent of the Patriots’ running back snaps, and he appeared poised to reach a similar number this year based on the preseason and Sunday’s game in which he started. But a near-fumble in the first quarter (he was ruled down by officials), then a lost fumble in the second quarter that was returned 74 yards for a touchdown landed him a seat on the bench for the rest of the game. Does Ridley assume the No. 1 duties again Thursday night against the Jets? If not, it’s LeGarrette Blount or Shane Vereen.

Amendola’s groin injury and his availability: Receiver Danny Amendola left Sunday’s game at the end of the second quarter with a groin injury before returning in the third quarter. His gutsy, clutch performance drew raves. But after the game, Amendola was guarded about his condition and whether it might affect his availability for Thursday's game. “Right now, I just feel good about the win; that’s all that really matters to me,” he said. “We’ll figure everything else out later.”

Brady and the inconsistent passing game: For those used to seeing an explosive Tom Brady-led passing game, Sunday’s struggle was a bit of a culture shock. The inexperience of undrafted rookies Kenbrell Thompkins and Zach Sudfeld showed up at times, and when Amendola wasn’t on the field, Brady didn’t look as comfortable as Amendola has quickly developed into his Wes Welker-type security blanket. On a related note, second-round draft choice Aaron Dobson (hamstring) didn’t dress for the game, and given some of the struggles in the passing game, his status on the injury report figures to be watched closely.

Can never have enough pass rush: Part of it might have been the Patriots’ willingness to concede extra rushers to keep running back C.J. Spiller and the scrambling ability of quarterback EJ Manuel in check, but the pressure with the standard four rushers didn’t seem to disrupt Manuel enough when he was in the pocket surveying the field. The starting defensive line of left end Rob Ninkovich, defensive tackles Tommy Kelly and Vince Wilfork and right end Chandler Jones can’t be thrilled with the zero in the sack column on Sunday.

W2W4: Five things we'll be focused on

September, 6, 2013
9/06/13
10:26
AM ET
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Call it the final countdown. The regular season has kicked off for two teams, with just two more days until the Patriots take the field against the Bills in Buffalo (Sunday, 1 p.m. ET on CBS).

After an unusual offseason that saw countless unforeseen twists and turns, the Patriots are likely as ready as ever to get back on the field and begin the process of achieving their ultimate goal.

There are new faces aplenty in the receiver corps, while the defense looks much like the group from last season. The coaching staff is virtually unchanged, with Bill Belichick welcoming another familiar face in Brian Daboll back into the mix.

On Sunday, the Patriots have a chance to begin their division title defense against an AFC East foe while also trying to continue their recent dominance of the Bills. In fact, quarterback Tom Brady is 20-2 against the Bills in his career, a mark he hopes to further improve upon this weekend.

With kickoff right around the corner, here are five things we’ll be watching for when the Patriots take on the Bills.

1. Does preseason success translate into the regular season for receiving corps? Indications from the preseason are that the Patriots pass-catchers will hold up just fine, as Danny Amendola, Julian Edelman, Kenbrell Thompkins, Zach Sudfeld and others have looked very much in sync with Brady. But the regular season is a new test and all eyes will be on this group -- particularly the rookies making their NFL debuts. If the Patriots hope to repeat their offensive success from last season, there can be no easing period for the new wideouts in New England.

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2. Can the secondary stay on the arc of progression? The Patriots secondary picked it up down the stretch in 2012, and with several pieces in place again this season, improvement is expected. It looks like the same starters from the end of 2012 will get the nod this season, with Kyle Arrington as the top reserve cornerback followed by Logan Ryan. It seems plausible that the third safety will be another third-rounder from Rutgers, as Duron Harmon may have leapfrogged Tavon Wilson and Nate Ebner on the depth chart. This group needs to build off of its momentum from 2012.

3. Disrupting Manuel. In 17 games against rookie quarterbacks, the Patriots are 13-4 under Bill Belichick (all four losses, incidentally, have come on the road). They’ll have another first-year test in EJ Manuel, the top quarterback picked in this year’s draft and the hopeful franchise player in Buffalo for the future. While Manuel is considered a polished prospect, how much the Patriots will be able to disrupt and confuse him with multiple looks will, at least in part, dictate his NFL debut. Don’t be surprised to see the Patriots bring the heat with extra rushers.

4. Rotations at RB, TE, LB. From the more under-the-radar category, there’s some intrigue in how the team rotates its players at three positions: running back, tight end and linebacker. At tight end, supposing Rob Gronkowski is unable to play, how might the Patriots deploy their duo of healthy bodies? Will Sudfeld play the predominant number of snaps, or will it be a more balanced workload? At running back, it appears Shane Vereen will be cast in the role Danny Woodhead played last season, with LeGarrette Blount as a backup to workhorse Stevan Ridley. As it relates to the linebackers, who will align next to Jerod Mayo in sub defensive packages? Could top draft choice Jamie Collins get the nod, or might it be Brandon Spikes/Dont'a Hightower, as it was last season? Dane Fletcher could be in the mix, too.

5. Special-teams notes. The Patriots have a new punter for the first time since 2010, and it’s a test for rookie Ryan Allen to show he’s ready for NFL action. Beyond his punting responsibilities, Allen will be called upon to hold on the field goal team. That’s an underrated chore that he must show he’s capable to do consistently. On the kickoff return team, might we see Blount step up into the role that the team struggled with in 2012? If so, he’d qualify as one of the bigger return men in recent NFL action. Finally, the Patriots have no shortage of punt return options, including Amendola and Edelman, who is the only player to have a punt return for a score in each of the past three seasons.

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