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Young RBs ready for their screen debuts - The Sun Chronicle : Patriots

Young RBs ready for their screen debuts

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Posted: Tuesday, July 31, 2012 12:31 am

FOXBORO - Keep in mind that the New England Patriots are a pass-first team.

And their second, third and fourth options are also passing, at least recently. Not since 2004, when Corey Dillon churned out 1,635 rushing yards, has the ground game been perceived as being on equal footing with Tom Brady's aerial antics.

That's not likely to change in 2012, but there are signs early in this training camp that the Patriots are at least intrigued with the talents of a young stable of running backs. But their best contributions could be in the passing game. Go figure.

In recent days, the Patriots have been working diligently to polish up the screen pass, a play that seemed to have fallen in disfavor with the emergence of Wes Welker as a slot receiver and tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez running patterns that mimic the results of screen passes.

But now, with a couple of young talents in the backfield looking to take the anticipated second-year step up in value, the traditional screen is an intriguing option.

"I enjoy any time the coaches can get the ball in my hands and anything I can do for the team," said second-year veteran Shane Vereen on the topic.

"It's fun," added fellow second-year vet Stevan Ridley. "To see three big linemen out there in front of you, trying to get downfield on some DBs (defensive backs), it's a chance to make a big play."

The screen pass was the bane of the Patriots' offense for many years, never seeming to be effective no matter who was at quarterback or who the coach was. But early in Bill Belichick's tenure, Tom Brady developed a rapport with a few of his backs, including J.R. Redmond and Kevin Faulk.

Faulk was the most effective of them all at catching the ball out of the backfield and using the screen to pick up crucial yards, but his effectiveness dropped because of injury and age over the last two seasons. The Patriots are moving on to a new era, and it seems as if they can't wait to develop yet another weapon for a passing attack that already has a new deep threat in Brandon Lloyd, the best slot receiver in the game in Welker, and the explosive tight ends.

"I think it just fits into the offense," said Vereen, who was adept at the screen at California. "We've got to be able to do multiple things as an offense and we've got to be able to do them well. In order to do it well you've got to practice it."

It's no coincidence that the Patriots were most effective at using the screen when Josh McDaniels was in his first tenure as their offensive coordinator. McDaniels is back, and so is the play.

"It's effective because it puts defenses on their heels, but it also just opens another chapter of our offense," Vereen said.

Ridley didn't have much experience in the screen pass at Louisiana State, but he said he liked the idea of having the modern-day equivalent of a blocking wedge in front of him after catching a short toss from Brady.

"For me, it's a present, almost," he said. "When you have lead blockers going down the field like that, I look forward to it when it does open up. It's a lot of fun. If we can get it down, and get it like the coaches want us to run it, I think we'll get to call that play a pretty good bit."

Both of the young backs have something to prove this year.

Ridley got the lion's share of the rookie-year action, playing in all 16 games and carrying 87 times for 441 yards. But a late-season case of butterfingers kept him on the pine in the playoffs, the coaching staff having lost its confidence in his ability to hang onto the football in crucial situations.

He knows he's under the microscope this year.

"I'm just trying to come in here and be as close to perfect as I can be that's the way this offense is run," Ridley said. "I know what Tom expects out of the offense when it's out there; he wants perfection. We're still getting coached up when we come in there. I have a long way to go. I just have to go out there and do the best, do whatever the coaches tell me to do, make those adjustments the following day and try not to repeat the same mistakes."

Vereen, meanwhile, struggled with a hamstring pull all last year and saw limited action in five games, carrying 15 times for 57 yards. He knows this training camp is an important opportunity to show what he couldn't do last year.

"I'm hoping to get better," he said. "There are a lot of areas where I need to improve personally and there are a lot of areas that I'd like to get better at. That's what I'm trying to do this camp."

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