FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Down their star tight end, top running back (who had been benched after fumbling) and four points, the Patriots turned to two players in the fourth quarter of their thrilling season-opening victory against the Buffalo Bills: running back Shane Vereen and wide receiver Danny Amendola.
The duo combined for 263 total yards on Sunday, more than 61 percent of the team’s total output, and were targeted on 24 of Tom Brady’s 52 passing attempts.
With their backs against the wall in a closing-minutes drive, Vereen and Amendola were, for lack of a better term, money in the bank: They touched the ball on the first nine plays of the 12-play drive that concluded with two kneel-downs by Brady and a field goal from Stephen Gostkowski to seal the victory.
And now the Patriots are staring down the possibility of playing without both, as they were the only two players not spotted at Tuesday’s walkthrough. Vereen had wrist surgery on Monday and was put on injured reserve with a designation to return on Tuesday, so he is out until at least Week 11. Amendola hasn’t been entirely ruled out, but it looks unlikely that he will play, according to ESPN NFL Insider Ed Werder.
The Patriots' offense has already dealt with turnover entering the 2013 season, and Amendola was expected to be a weekly focal point in the role Wes Welker long held, something he lived up to in Week 1. Vereen, meanwhile, finally appeared to realize the potential he has displayed during his first two pro seasons, registering the best effort of his young career.
With neither in the fold Thursday night, the Patriots' offense wouldn’t be depleted, but it would be weakened.
Picking up the pieces, let’s examine how the Patriots can account for their potential absences in three areas.
• Running game: Even if Vereen were healthy, he would not have been the guaranteed starting running back in Week 2, even though he was the best player at the position on Sunday. Stevan Ridley, fumbling issues notwithstanding, has established himself as the clear-cut workhorse running back in New England.
There was the possibility that he would be benched Thursday for his Week 1 ball-security issues, but keep this in mind: In the games following each of Ridley’s four fumbles last season, he averaged 17.75 carries per game. In the 12 other games, he averaged 18.25 carries.
Bill Belichick hardly tolerates turnovers, but to suppose the staff will lose its faith in Ridley this quickly is shortsighted.
With Vereen out a while, look for the team to lean heavily on Ridley once again; he had his moments in Week 1, averaging more than 5 yards per carry.
• Up-tempo offense: This is the area where things get interesting, as Vereen was at his best when the Patriots were moving their fastest. His unique pass-catching skills complemented his quickness and elusiveness as a runner, tailor-made for what the Patriots are trying to accomplish with their breakneck tempo. Vereen absorbed the role that backs including Kevin Faulk and Danny Woodhead had so ably performed in during previous seasons.
Ridley, while capable of handling this role sporadically, is not as ideal an option. He’s less polished as a receiver than Vereen, and his ability to shoulder a heavy load on between-the-tackle runs is where he makes his money.
Washington is perhaps the closest thing to Vereen among the other backs, although he was limited on Monday due to a thigh issue. Bolden is a capable pass-catcher, but he’s working through a knee problem. The injury to Washington appears to be the less serious one, so a return for Thursday night doesn’t look out of the question.
If he’s on the field, he has the pass-catching skills, dependability as a pass-protector and wiggle as an open-field runner to be an effective up-tempo back.
• Passing game: Replacing Amendola is no easy chore, not by a long shot. It took just one game for him to prove his value in New England, making seemingly difficult catch after difficult catch.
What was particularly effective for the Patriots' offense on Sunday was two-man route concepts between the numbers involving Amendola and Julian Edelman, himself a top performer in Week 1. The quick, shifty duo was able to work off each to create space underneath.
Edelman played 83 of 94 offensive snaps -- 88 percent -- in the opener, a percentage he’s likely to repeat this week. He’ll elevate to the top receiver role, with Kenbrell Thompkins (91 snaps) to remain on the outside as the perimeter presence.
But if Edelman is to become this week’s Amendola, who will in turn become this week’s Edelman?
The Patriots have a built-in option to step up in rookie Josh Boyce, who took 15 snaps in his NFL debut, though he did not register a catch on two targets.
Although not as sudden as Amendola and Edelman, Boyce is a good short-area route-runner who has very good speed and reliable catching skills. It’s a lot to ask of a rookie to step up in a big spot, but with a short week, the team may have to act fast and work Boyce into a more prominent role.
Fellow rookie Aaron Dobson remains limited due to a hamstring injury, although our sense remains that even if he is active on Thursday night, he’ll be more of a reserve-level contributor than a regular. He was clearly behind the other two rookie receivers throughout training camp and may not be quite ready to shoulder a heavy load.
The Patriots' plan at tight end may be forced to change as well with Zach Sudfeld being limited due to a hamstring injury. If he’s unable to go, the team is limited in terms of in-house replacements, with just Michael Hoomanawanui as a healthy tight end.
They may try to bring aboard another body at tight end to provide insurance if Sudfeld can’t play Thursday night, but with no extra tight end added before Tuesday’s walk-through, that would mean any addition would suit up without any practice time.
Should Sudfeld play, the team will need a better performance than his catchless debut, but he showed throughout training camp that he’s a capable receiver for this offense.
The Patriots have long been among the best at replacing missing players, on long notice or short. Thursday night will be the latest test, with the opportunity to win their second division game in four days at stake.