The New England Patriots’ lone Week 1 touchdown scorer now will be unavailable until at least Week 6.
Two days after their 20-7 loss to the Miami Dolphins at Hard Rock Stadium, the Patriots placed running back Ty Montgomery on injured reserve, sidelining him for a minimum of four games and limiting New England’s backfield options.
Montgomery was carted to the locker room in the Patriots’ preseason finale with what the team called an ankle injury, but he appeared to operate without limitations in their regular-season opener, playing more offensive snaps (21) than Rhamondre Stevenson (14) and nearly as many as lead back Damien Harris (22). Montgomery carried twice for -2 yards, caught three passes for 15 yards and a touchdown and also was New England’s primary kick returner.
With James White now enjoying retirement, Montgomery stepped into his role as the Patriots’ top passing-down back. That’s a void they’ll now need to fill until he’s healthy enough to return.
How will they do it? For starters, since the Patriots are unlikely to enter a game with just two available running backs, Montgomery’s injury likely will push either fourth-round rookie Pierre Strong or third-year pro J.J. Taylor onto the 46-man gameday roster for this Sunday’s Week 2 matchup with the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Strong, a healthy scratch against Miami, has been viewed as a possible long-term White successor, but he didn’t look ready for real offensive playing time during his first NFL preseason. Taylor is more experienced, but he’s seen only sporadic playing time over his two pro seasons, totaling 42 carries for 147 yards and two touchdowns and five catches on six targets for 12 yards across 11 career appearances. He’s currently on the practice squad.
Either Strong or Taylor could take on Montgomery’s kick-return duties, but the Patriots may be better off shifting his offensive responsibilities to one of their established backs. Stevenson, in particular, is an intriguing option there. The 2021 fourth-round draft pick spent the offseason working to improve his route-running and looked smooth as a pass-catcher during training camp.
“(He’s) certainly (made) an effort to improve, and that’s a great thing,” head coach Bill Belichick said after the preseason. “… It’s something that he now has shown that he can do. Or it might even become a strength. So I really admire Mondre for doing that and for the effort that he’s put into it. … I think his attention to the details of his route-running and passing game have certainly shown up in practice, and hopefully they’ll show up in the games now.”
Harris also is a capable receiver (21 targets, 18 catches, 132 yards last season) but has been almost exclusively an early-down player for the Patriots. Just 16 of his 377 career touches have come on third down, and just five of those were on third-and-5 or longer, according to Pro-Football-Reference. He has yet to catch a third-down pass in his career.
Pass protection is just as important as pass-catching for a third-down back — Montgomery held up well in that area Sunday — so the Patriots likely will use the player they trust most as a blocker in that role. They’ll face a stiff challenge against a Steelers defense that notched seven sacks in its Week 1 win over the Cincinnati Bengals, with six of those coming from players other than now-injured superstar T.J. Watt.
In separate roster moves Tuesday, the Patriots promoted wide receiver Lil’Jordan Humphrey from the practice squad to take Montgomery’s spot on the 53-man roster and signed familiar offensive tackle Marcus Cannon to the P-squad.
The big-bodied Humphrey provides depth at wideout and tight end and can play on special teams. It’ll be interesting to see if he again logs more offensive snaps (three) than Kendrick Bourne (two), whose minuscule role against Miami has been a hot topic this week. Bringing back Cannon suggests the Patriots don’t feel as good about their tackle depth as they publicly proclaimed before the season. Cannon appeared in 115 games with 69 starts for New England from 2011 to 2019 but has played in just two games over the last two seasons.