PITTSBURGH — Ezekiel Elliott had just touched the ball 29 times, his highest single-game total in nearly four years. He’d played all but five of the Patriots’ 57 offensive snaps in a hard-fought, much-needed win over the Pittsburgh Steelers.

How was the 28-year-old running back feeling physically?

Elliott smiled.

“I feel so good,” he said, beaming, after Thursday night’s 21-18 victory at Acrisure Stadium. “I feel really good.”

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Elliott had been waiting for a game like this. The three-time Pro Bowler signed with New England knowing and accepting that he’d be the No. 2 behind Rhamondre Stevenson. But he also knew his days of being a game-changing lead back weren’t completely behind him.

With Stevenson out with a high ankle sprain, the Patriots needed Elliott to help carry their Bailey Zappe-led offense. The only options behind him were Ty Montgomery, a running back/receiver hybrid who rarely plays outside of special teams, and practice squad call-up Kevin Harris.

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Elliott delivered. Though he finished with a modest 68 rushing yards on 22 carries (2.1 yards per), he added seven catches on eight targets for 72 yards and a touchdown as the Patriots built a 21-3 halftime lead and then survived a Pittsburgh comeback bid.

“I definitely love playing with Mondre,” Elliott said. “We’ve gotten super close since we’ve been here. It sucks that he wasn’t out there with us tonight. But it definitely feels good for me to get out there, get the touches, touch the ball a lot, get in a rhythm and be a big part of this win.”

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Elliott’s 140 yards from scrimmage were the most by a Patriots player this season and his most since Week 4 of the 2021 season. It was the first time he played more than 90% of snaps in a game since Week 2, 2020. Montgomery saw just six snaps on offense, and Harris dressed but did not play.

“Zeke comes to work every day,” head coach Bill Belichick said postgame. “We needed him to step up and carry the ball today, and he did. Carried the ball, (played) a lot of plays, a lot of snaps. Short week. Got banged up last week. That was a pro performance (Thursday night).”

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Zappe, a Texas kid who was in high school when Elliott was drafted, saw flashes of his teammate’s Dallas Cowboys heyday. Elliott tallied more receiving yards in a game just four times in his career, with all of those coming in 2018 or earlier. He even made one key play as a tackler, dragging down defensive back Mykal Williams after a Zappe interception to prevent a pick-six.

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“For anybody to try to come down and tackle Zeke and these guys 1-on-1, we like that matchup,” said Zappe, who threw an 11-yard touchdown pass to Elliott on the opening drive. “So, to be able to get that ball to Zeke in the flat was a matchup that we liked.”

The quarterback added: “To be able to do what Zeke did (Thurdsay night), as far as the run game and pass game, just shows that he’s still the old-time Zeke and he still has a lot left in the tank.”

Elliott should see more opportunities like this one over the final four weeks of the Patriots’ season. Stevenson’s exact recovery timetable is unclear, but he’s expected to miss multiple games and, with New England far out of contention, could be shut down until 2024. Elliott feels ready to carry the load.

“This is the best I’ve felt this late in the season,” he said.

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Featured image via Charles LeClaire/USA TODAY Sports Images