Vereen makes the most of his chance

Vereen makes the most of his chance
January 14, 2013, 5:14 am
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FOXBORO -- It's always practice, isn't it? The genesis of moments like these can so often be traced back to a field without lights or stands lining the sidelines. They are the kinds of moments for which the foundation is laid under the watchful eyes of teammates and coaches and few others.

Shane Vereen had his moment on Sunday in New England's 41-28 win over the Texans in the Divisional Round of the playoffs. The second-year back out of the University of California was thrown into an increased role after fellow running back Danny Woodhead injured his thumb on the Patriots' first offensive play of the game, and he responded.

Vereen scored three times, one rushing touchdown and two receiving, each more improbable than the last.

"Shane had a great game," quarterback Tom Brady said. "Really just a huge growing up moment for him, so very special."

Vereen has always had the physical tools to play a game like this. The speed, the quickness, the hands, they were always there. He showed enough of each in college to be selected in the second round by the Patriots, one round before his teammate and 1,000-yard rusher Stevan Ridley. What hadn't always been there -- because of Woodhead's trusted hands and Ridley's ability to pound teams into submission -- was opportunity.

But as Vereen waited, he practiced. And he practiced well.

"He's done it in practice and he's the person that works hard and does his job," said Patriots tight end Aaron Hernandez. "When his number was called, he made a play and showed what type of player he is tonight."

Substitute the practice field behind Gillette Stadium for center stage inside it. Substitute grass for turf. New England's sun for bright lights. Barking coaches for roaring crowds. This was Vereen's night. Just like practice, only not at all.

Still, he was ready.

"I don't come into the game knowing how much anyone is going to play," Vereen said. "I come into the game ready to go and if my number is called, I do my best for the team."

Vereen didn't record a snap in last year's run to Super bowl XLVI, but he made his mark early in his first postseason game.

Lined up as a wide receiver in the first quarter, he caught a quick throw from Brady, shook Texans linebacker Bradie James and gained 25 yards. "Let's go!" he screamed as got up from the play and beat his chest.

Just before the ball was snapped, Houston didn't have a defender lined up on Vereen. James scooted to the outside, but Brady recognized the mismatch and took advantage.

"We used some different formations to try to move some people around," Patriots coach Bill Belichick said. "As Tom usually does, he finds the best matchups depending on the route and the coverage and so forth and getting the ball to the guys that have a good opportunity to win on those routes. A lot of credit goes to Tom for finding him but also to Shane for running good routes, catching the ball in tight coverage, running after the catch, all those things."

Of course, Vereen and the Patriots honed that one on the practice field.

"Obviously it's something we worked on during the week," Belichick said. "When Tom saw matchups he liked out there, he was able to take advantage of it."

When Vereen saw James scramble to line up across from on the outside, he admitted that a light went off. This was his chance.

"I knew that the matchup was in my favor," he said. "But at the same time, they are great defenders as well. So I have to do a great job of getting open."

It turned out to be the first of many. Two plays later, he ran for a 1-yard touchdown, his first score since a blowout win over the Jets on Thanksgiving.

His next touchdown was set up by a one-handed 47-yard catch by Patriots receiver Wes Welker in the second quarter. On the next play, Vereen found himself wide open for an eight-yard touchdown catch.

Vereen's third score showed just how different his skill set is compared to Woodhead and Ridley. Again, lined up as a wide receiver outside the numbers, he ran what looked like a slant-and-go pattern on Texans linebacker Barrett Ruud. Brady dropped a perfect pass into the front corner of the end zone and Vereen made a lunging catch for the score.

When he got to his feet, Vereen spread his arms wide and carried an expression that made him look as surprised as Texans coach Gary Kubiak and defensive coordinator Wade Phillips must have been.

Vereen finished with seven carries for 41 yards and five catches for 83 yards, and due in large part to his effort, the Patriots will play the Ravens in a rematch of the AFC Championship game at home next week.

"It is going to be a great matchup," Vereen said. "It's always is between us and the Ravens. We are going to have to go to work this week and get ready to play a great team."

That means going back to the practice field, away from the lights and the crowds, where a seldom used running back from California will grind it out in the hopes that he's ready for another big moment on an even bigger stage if and when the opportunity presents itself.