In the past, poorly timed fumbles have landed Patriots running backs in Bill Belichick’s doghouse.
It doesn’t sound like that’ll happen with Rhamondre Stevenson.
Despite coughing up the ball in the final minute of Sunday’s 22-18 loss to the Cincinnati Bengals at Gillette Stadium, Stevenson has received positive reviews from his New England coaches this week.
Belichick said Monday that he wouldn’t “second-guess” Stevenson, who’s been the Patriots’ top offensive performer this season. Running backs coach Vinnie Sunseri offered a similar message Tuesday, saying he does not want to give Stevenson any teaching points that would neuter his elusive, hard-charging play style.
Stevenson has excelled at generating yards after contact this season, allowing him to overcome deficiencies along the Patriots’ offensive line. Belichick and Sunseri also both noted that Stevenson had two hands on the ball when Bengals safety Vonn Bell punched it out, so his technique on the play was sound.
The one message Sunseri did give Stevenson after his costly ball-security slipup: make sure you’re aware of the game situation. His fumble occurred on first-and-goal from the 5-yard line, so a run for no gain or a short loss wouldn’t have been disastrous in that scenario.
“I’m never going to question a player fighting for yards,” Sunseri said in a video conference. “The one thing that we just have to note is the situation in the game. You have to have two hands on the ball, and he had two hands on the football, and like every great back, he’s going to fight for extra yards. He just has to know the situation within the game. He has to know how much time’s left. He has to know where we’re at on the football field, and he just has to try to have the best ball security possible.
“But I’m not going to question Rhamondre. He’s been playing really hard. It’s the first ball he’s lost all season. We’re definitely going to take note of that, but just going forward, I don’t want to change who he is as a football player, because you’re going to take away some of the best ability that he has. Some of his best runs are after contact, and that’s what he’s shown. We’re just going to move past it. We’re going to put an emphasis point on ball security this week. He has to understand two hands on the football at all times and keeping the person that he is. I trust him.”
Stevenson, who hadn’t lost a fumble since Week 1 of the 2021 season, said after the game that he was “probably trying to do more than (he) was supposed to do” and “should have just went down.” It was his second such error in as many games.
Six days earlier, he lateraled with no time remaining in a tie game rather than allowing himself to be tackled and playing for overtime. Las Vegas Raiders linebacker Chandler Jones picked off a subsequent lateral by Jakobi Meyers and returned for a game-winning touchdown.
With injuries sidelining running mate Damien Harris for six games and parts of three others, Stevenson has carried an immense workload this season, playing a higher rate of offensive snaps (68.4%) than any other Patriots back in the last decade. The 24-year-old played 51 of a possible 56 snaps against the Bengals, posting a snap rate above 90% for the second time in four weeks despite still recovering from an ankle injury.
Sunseri was asked whether Stevenson’s heavy load is causing him to wear down. The Cincinnati game was one of his least productive of the season, as he finished with just 30 yards on 13 carries and two catches for 3 yards. Stevenson also dropped a pass and fumbled twice, with one rolling out of bounds.
“I don’t think so,” the coach replied. “I think the kid’s done a great job of taking care of his body. He handles everything like a true professional. He’s handled the situation last week and the week before very professionally. I don’t have too many concerns. I think he’s in a good situation to go out and play good football the remainder of the season. We have the other backs that are ready to go. They’re prepared to go for any situation that comes up in the football game.
“So for Rhamondre, I’m just going to tell him the exact same thing I’m telling you guys: Keep being you, understand the situations within the game, understand that ball security’s always our No. 1 priority as a running back and keep playing the way you’ve been playing.”
Stevenson leads the Patriots in both rushing yards (944) and receptions (62) this season and ranks 12th in the NFL in yards from scrimmage (1,328). He’s on pace to become the first New England player since LeGarrette Blount in 2016 and just the sixth in the Belichick era to surpass 1,000 rushing yards in a season.
New England will need him to be at his best this Sunday when it hosts the Miami Dolphins in a must-win game. A loss would eliminate the Patriots from playoff contention, while a victory would keep their hopes alive entering their regular-season finale at Buffalo.