FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — With few exceptions over Bill Belichick’s 22 years as coach of the New England Patriots, he hasn’t relied on a lead running back.
Belichick’s committee approach has often frustrated fantasy football managers, and as championships are soon to be decided, it’s happening again in 2021. But in real-life football, the two-is-better-than-one approach has been a catalyst for the Patriots’ six-game winning streak as they enter Monday night’s road game against the Buffalo Bills (8:15 p.m. ET, ESPN).
The past two games, in particular, have been telling.
Damien Harris has started. Then on the second series, rookie Rhamondre Stevenson enters the game. Harris takes over on the next series. Then Stevenson.
It’s been a true series-by-series rotation — Harris finishing with 47 snaps played and Stevenson 42.
“It’s one of the better 1-2 punches in the league,” starting right tackle Trent Brown said. “Both of those guys run tough, run hard. And they make us look good up front.”
They also help rookie quarterback Mac Jones stay out of harm’s way, which has helped him grow. An added bonus: A productive running game sets up play-action passing opportunities, where Jones has been lethal at times.
The 5-foot-11, 213-pound Harris, a 2019 third-round pick from Alabama, leads the Patriots with 154 carries for 643 yards (4.2 avg.) and eight touchdowns.
The 6-foot, 226-pound Stevenson, a 2021 fourth-round pick from Oklahoma, has 76 carries for 351 yards (4.6 avg.) and three touchdowns.
“They’re tremendous. ‘Mondre has come on, especially the past few games. Damien has been very consistent, but they just balance each other really well,” veteran tight end Hunter Henry said.
“They’re both big. They both have great vision. Cuts. Speed. They have everything you would want. They’re catching the ball out of the backfield, too. It’s fun to block for those guys like that because they make your job a little bit easier.”
Harris and Stevenson pair with “passing back” Brandon Bolden, who usually enters on third down. Bolden has filled the void created by veteran James White‘s season-ending injury Oct. 17.
“We have confidence in all our backs. They’ve all been productive,” Belichick said.
ESPN Monday Night Football analyst Louis Riddick sees all three contributing in different ways.
“Harris sets the tone as a runner with his physicality. Bolden is the one they seem to trust in the passing game as far as protection and consistency as a blocker. And Stevenson is the guy who is the most talented by far that will be better than both of the other two as a runner and receiver,” Riddick said. “[Stevenson] has every tool you are looking for — size, speed, agility, hands. He is still ascending and will play a bigger and bigger and bigger role as time goes on.”
The Patriots enter Monday’s game averaging 115.3 rushing yards per game, which ranks 12th in the NFL. Their 4.1 average per rush ranks 19th, but doesn’t necessarily reflect how the running game helps them assert a physical presence that has become a significant part of their offensive identity.
“The way they’ve been playing is emblematic of the way this whole entire team has been playing, with great effort, attention to detail, and executing when your number has been called,” starting left guard Ted Karras said of Harris and Stevenson. “Those two have been a big part of why we’ve had recent success.”
Belichick often says every decision he makes is in the interest of helping the team win, and he can point to 2004 as a shining example of his willingness to lean on a lead running back. That was the year Corey Dillon totaled 345 carries for 1,635 yards, which remains the franchise’s single-season record.
There have been other years when most of the early-down workload trended in the direction of a single back — such as Stevan Ridley’s 290 carries in 2012, and LeGarrette Blount’s 299 in 2016 — but Belichick has traditionally favored more of a committee.
He said last week there’s no specific reason for those decisions, which Harris and Stevenson say they are embracing.
Damien Harris is in for the score! @DHx34 #ForeverNE
📺: #TENvsNE on CBS
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— NFL (@NFL) November 28, 2021
“It’s been great, honestly,” Harris said. “Obviously rotating keeps guys fresh, allows us to keep going out there to execute and play well. Ultimately, we’re all in this together — everybody on this team has a role, everybody has a job to do. So regardless of when your name is called, you have to go out and make a play. We all play for one another.”
Stevenson, a native of Las Vegas who was named outstanding offensive player of the 2020 Cotton Bowl after rushing 18 times for 186 yards and a touchdown in a 55-20 win against Florida, said that all-for-one mindset is his favorite aspect of the Patriots.
“I enjoy doing it, especially with my boy Damien. I feel like me and Damien complement each other’s game very well. I think it’s a nice change-up,” he said. “And Brandon’s back there as well. It’s fun, us all having a shot doing what we do best. We all bring a little bit different running style to the table.”
Their willingness to share the load has earned them respect from the coaching staff.
“They’re really great teammates and work really well together,” assistant running backs coach Vinnie Sunseri said. “They’ve filled those roles. They embrace it.”
Owning their mistakes
Harris and Stevenson have overcome adversity earlier this season to establish themselves as a potent tandem.
Rhamondre Stevenson’s first NFL TD gives the @Patriots the lead! #ForeverNE
📺: #DALvsNE on CBS
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— NFL (@NFL) October 17, 2021
Harris lost a fumble late in the fourth quarter of a shocking 17-16 season-opening home loss against the Miami Dolphins when the team was driving for a potential winning score. Immediately after the game, at a time when some players might have chosen to avoid speaking with reporters, Harris was front-and-center and said he wouldn’t let the fumble define him.
Stevenson also fumbled in that game, and missed a blitz pickup, which led to his benching for three games. He was back in the lineup for two contests, but then was surprisingly inactive Oct. 24 against the New York Jets, which running backs coach Ivan Fears hinted was a result of him continuing to adjust to the demands of the team’s hard-driving culture. Stevenson has been back the past five games, and continues to build momentum.
“Each of their situations is unique and obviously their journeys this year have been very different,” said longtime captain Matthew Slater, the team’s longest tenured player.
“Rhamondre … he’s been coached really hard and I think he’s responded very well to it. He’s remained humble enough to receive the coaching and he keeps improving. That’s all you can ask from a young player.
“Damien had some tough breaks early on in the year, but I don’t think his approach ever changed. … he did a good job of putting that behind him. That’s football. Things like that are going to happen.
Belichick referred to Harris and Stevenson as “bigger, physical guys”, and Jones said combining them with a solid offensive line of Isaiah Wynn, Karras, David Andrews, Shaq Mason and Brown is the foundation of the offense.
Fullback Jakob Johnson brings a physical edge when the Patriots insert him into the lineup, and the tight ends — led by Henry and Jonnu Smith — naturally factor into the run-blocking mix.
It has been commonplace to see Harris and Stevenson steamroll ahead, plowing over defenders, which can be galvanizing.
“When they’re finishing runs like that, it just makes you want to block a little bit extra, do a little bit extra, because you know those guys are finishing hard,” Henry said. “They’re going to make plays, so if you just hold your block a little bit longer, a big play can come.”