Rookie Vereen must catch up quickly

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Rookie Vereen must catch up quickly

By A. Sherrod Blakely
CSNNE.com Celtics Insider
Follow @sherrodbcsn
FOXBORO Shane Vereen carried the ball 11 times for 34 yards in Thursday's 18-17 preseason loss to the New York Giants.

Not that big a deal, right?

When you consider the hamstring injury that sidelined the rookie running back for most of training camp, getting an opportunity to be on the field was in itself a victory.

Forget about playing.

Vereen acknowledges not being able to participate in practice has made his first foray into the NFL a frustrating one at times.

"The main thing is I want to be there for my team and help them out any way possible," Vereen said following the game. "I was able to get out there today a little bit."

Like any player, whether you're a pup like Vereen or an All-Pro, opportunities to get on the field in preseason games are the best gauge to see just how far a player has come -- or how far they have to go -- before the regular season begins.

"We're trying to evaluate everybody, including the veterans," said Pats coach Bill Belichick. "What veterans did last year, that's great, but that's last year. It's really where they are now and what they can contribute to this team, so I think they have to prove themselves just like the rookies do."

But the difference is that with veterans, they have a track record of having proven themselves NFL-ready.

Rookies? Not so much. Just about everything rookies do is a first-time experience.

When you compound the challenges of everything being new with an injury, it's understandable why Vereen's approach to Thursday's game was a bit different. As a running back, the objective of most games is to avoid as many hits as possible.

But when you've been shelved for as long as Vereen was, any contact is good contact.

"That was the big thing about his first preseason game, being able to bang a little bit," he said. "It was a sigh of relief when I finally did."

But for Vereen to get an opportunity to play meaningful reps this year, a lot of things will have to fall into place in a hurry.

Danny Woodhead and BenJarvus Green-Ellis have established themselves as New England's top two running backs. And with only Thursday's game under his belt, Vereen will have a difficult time pushing ahead of players such as fellow rookie Stevan Ridley or veteran Sammy Morris.

Although things have been challenging, Vereen acknowledged earlier that having played in a pro system like the one he was in at Cal under Jeff Tedford, helped a lot.

"The system that we used back in college is pretty spread, and we did a lot of different things," said Vereen, who is the latest in a long line of Cal running backs (Jahvid Best, Marshawn Lynch and Justin Forsett) to land in the NFL. "It helped me understand defenses."

Now if he can just stay healthy enough to put that knowledge to use, and potentially move up the depth chart.

Knowing he has missed a considerable amount of time due to his injury, Vereen is eager to prove himself on the field not only to himself, but also his teammates.

However, he says he won't put too much pressure on himself to perform.

"I don't think I need to step outside and try too hard, step outside of what I do," he said. "I have confidence in myself and whatever role coaches want me to play. I'm more than willing to step into that role."

A. Sherrod Blakely can be reached at sblakely@comcastsportsnet.com. Follow Sherrod on Twitter at http:twitter.comsherrodbcsn

Butler, Brown set to square off again in AFC title game

Butler, Brown set to square off again in AFC title game

FOXBORO -- The general consensus has been that when it comes to defending Antonio Brown, or any No. 1 receiver for that matter, the Patriots have two options: Use their top corner Malcolm Butler in man-to-man coverage or double-team him.

There are benefits to each. Butler has the speed an quickness to effectively mirror Brown's routes. Meanwhile, Logan Ryan has found recent success in teaming up with teammates to slow down top options like Houston's DeAndre Hopkins, who was the target when Devin McCourty broke up a fourth-quarter pass that resulted in a Ryan interception last week. 

Both the Steelers and the Patriots seemed to indicate that they knew which way Bill Belichick will lean this weekend. 

"[I] assume maybe that [Butler] will follow AB around," Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger said. "He’s a guy that really has just come into the role of being pretty much a shutdown corner."

"[Butler] takes this as a big challenge," Patriots defensive captain Dont'a Hightower said. "We obviously know what Antonio Brown is. He’s arguably the best wide receiver in the league. We know what kind of matchup threat he poses. We expect Malcolm to take advantage of that, and I know he’s ready to rise up to that challenge." 

But Brown -- named a First-Team All-Pro this season after reeling in 106 passes for 1,284 yards and 12 touchdowns -- has the ability to make one singular plan of attack obsolete, eventually. The Patriots will have to throw different looks at him to keep him guessing, keep Roethlisberger thinking, and keep their connection somewhat under control.

Here are a few of the options . . . 

COVER-1

In Week 7 against the Steelers, this seemed to be the coverage of choice for the Patriots. They used Butler to shadow Brown all over the field for much of the game while one safety patrolled the deep middle portion of the field.

The third-year corner saw nine targets sent his way while in coverage of Brown. Five were caught for 94 yards.

Though the numbers looked pretty good for Brown fantasy owners, Butler had one of his stronger games of the season, making an interception in the end zone while draped all over his man. That was followed up by a celebrattion that mocked Brown's staple touchdown dance.

Brown and Butler have a relationship after seeing each other over the last two seasons and shooting a Visa commerical together earlier this year, and he sounded fired up to go against Brown again this weekend.

"Most definitely I respect that guy," Butler said of Brown this week. "Great player obviously, and (I) just love to compete and he loves to compete also."

Though Butler found himself on what looked like an island in plenty of situations back in Week 7, the Patriots also had their deep safeties (McCourty and Duron Harmon) keep a close eye on Brown as well.

But on Brown's longest catch of the game, a 51-yarder over the middle of the field, having a safety there didn't mean much due to a smart play-design by offensive coordinator Todd Haley. 

Brown was followed by Butler all the way across the field, and though Harmon may have been in position to help over the top, he had to respect the deep over route run by Steelers burner Darrius Heyward-Bey. By the time Harmon got to Brown -- Heyward-Bey actually helped slow down Harmon by screening him deep down the field -- it was too late. 

IMMEDIATE DOUBLE-TEAM

There were other instances -- like the very first third-and-long of the game for the Steelers -- when the Patriots doubled Brown off the snap with Butler and McCourty. With a player of Brown's caliber, it's not question of either single him with Butler or double him. Doubles will simply be part of the deal, in all likelihood, whether Butler's on him or not.

Back in Week 7, the Patriots were burned by Steelers secondary options on a couple of occasions when they quickly removed Brown from the equation.

The first time Brown was doubled off the snap (above), Eric Rowe was left with Heyward-Bey in a one-on-one situation and was beaten for a 14-yard touchdown in the back corner of the end zone. The second time (below), Heyward-Bey ran across the field with Rowe trailing him, scoring once again from 14 yards out.

A holding penalty negated the second score, but it seemed clear what the Patriots were trying to tell the Steelers in those situations: "Go ahead and beat us with someone else, but we won't let you do it with Brown."

Even when Brown inevitably makes plays despite the extra attention -- the Steelers will run rub routes, screens and reverses simply to get the football in his hands -- it will be incumbent upon everyone to help limit his yards after the catch, McCourty explained this week.

"Brown is a great player and Malcolm has done a great job but it’s going to be all of us," McCourty said. "All of us have to help out and make sure we try to limit him whether that’s getting everyone to the ball, whether it’s a short pass [or] intermediate pass, whether he breaks a tackle and he’s trying to reverse, we all just got to have a high sense of urgency for him and alertness and try to get to him before he’s able to break the 50-60-yard play. I think defensively we all understand that and we’re going to work on that all week."

COVER-2, 2-MAN, COVER-4, ETC., ETC., ETC...

There are plenty of other defenses that the Patriots may choose to run in order to try to take away one of the game's best play-makers. If they feel as though Heyward-Bey or Eli Rogers or another teammate of Brown's is worthy of garnering special attention from one of their safeties, they could opt for more split-safety looks -- with both McCourty and Harmon deep -- than they did in Week 7.

The fact that it's Ben Roethlisberger behind center now -- and not Landry Jones, as it was in Week 7 -- may also help dictate coverages and encourage the Patriots to be more vigilent against the explosive play. 

Bottom line: Bill Belichick and defensive coordinator Matt Patricia will employ more than one look when they take on the best passing game they've faced all season. Oftentimes that'll mean two sets of eyes on Brown, and even then that's not guaranteed to stop him.

"It's tough because the thing about Antonio Brown and players of that caliber is that they're used to the multiple attention," Ryan said. "He gets doubled, he gets attention. Every team tries to do it, and he still has the numbers he has because he's a great player. That's what great players do.

"We just need to execute a little better than what other teams do. It's possible. It's not impossible. But he's not a guy you're going to completely eliminate from the game, and we've just got to corral him as a team."