Rhamondre Stevenson is Patriots’ No. 1 running back. That’s now an undisputed fact, whether Damien Harris is healthy or not.
But with Harris now dealing with a thigh injury that reportedly could sideline him for multiple weeks, New England needs someone else to share at least a small portion of the backfield workload with the explosive Stevenson.
Stevenson has been an absolute workhorse for the Patriots. Since Week 5, when Harris suffered the first of his three injuries this season, Stevenson has been on the field for 77.8% of the team’s offensive snaps. That’s the second-highest mark of any NFL running back during that span, trailing only New York Giants star Saquon Barkley (78.2%).
Overall, Stevenson has played 68% of New England’s offensive snaps, which would be the highest single-season snap rate of any Patriots back since at least 2012, when Pro-Football-Reference began recording that stat. No other has even topped 55%.
Stevenson hasn’t had any trouble handling that workload so far. He has yet to appear on the Patriots’ injury report, and he’s been extremely productive, leading the team in both rushing yards (680) and receptions (50). No Patriot in the Bill Belichick era has simultaneously been this effective as a rusher and receiver.
But Stevenson can’t be out there for every snap. No running back can. And since an injury to him would completely cripple the Patriots’ offense, they’ll need one of their less experienced, unproven backups to help spell Stevenson until Harris is healthy enough to return.
Who will that be? That’s unclear as the Patriots prepare for their Thursday night matchup with the Buffalo Bills at Gillette Stadium.
Fourth-round rookie Pierre Strong was active for nine of 11 games this season, but 86 of his 96 snaps to date were on special teams. The speedy South Dakota State product has just one carry for 5 yards and has not been targeted in the passing game. Strong was viewed as a possible successor to James White before the season, but an injury caused him to miss the start of training camp, and the coaching staff clearly does not yet trust him with any sort of offensive role. Strong also could be in Belichick’s doghouse after his costly running-into-the-kicker penalty in last week’s loss in Minnesota.
Rookie sixth-rounder Kevin Harris has played even less. He’s appeared in just one game, logging 12 snaps and carrying three times for 5 yards in a Week 6 win over Cleveland. Third-year pro J.J. Taylor, who was bumped back down to the practice squad last week, also has been active just once, rushing 10 times for 9 yards against Indianapolis.
Total season stats for those three reserve options: 14 carries, 19 yards, with Taylor also adding one catch for 8 yards. Veteran hybrid back Ty Montgomery is on injured reserve and will not return this season.
The Patriots have yet to officially rule out Damien Harris for Thursday night, but he did not practice this week, meaning he almost certainly will not suit up against Buffalo. Stevenson will continue to carry their backfield in rushing and passing situations, but they need one of his position mates to offer some measure of relief.
The Bills boast one of the NFL’s top run defenses, ranking seventh in yards allowed per game, ninth in yards allowed per carry, eighth in expected points added per rush and third in Football Outsiders’ DVOA. They’ve struggled to defend running backs in the passing game, however, with a pass defense DVOA against backs that ranks 21st. Stevenson has posted White-esque numbers in that area of late, catching six or more passes and surpassing 50 receiving yards in four of his last five games.