NFL News & Analysis

Rhamondre Stevenson, Patriots feel running back is ready for crucial third-down role

Foxborough, Massachusetts, USA; New England Patriots running back Rhamondre Stevenson (38) warms up warms up before a preseason game against the New York Giants at Gillette Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Eric Canha-USA TODAY Sports

FOXBORO, Mass. — The process required for a young running back to earn enough trust from New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick to play on third down is only slightly less rigorous than the training necessary to become a medical doctor.

Rhamondre Stevenson went through his residency last season. And he’ll have to skip the fellowship after some unforeseen blows to the Patriots’ running back depth. 

Ty Montgomery, who primarily served as New England’s third-down back in a 20-7 loss to the Miami Dolphins in Week 1, landed on injured reserve this week. James White was forced to retire this offseason after his 2021 season ended prematurely due to hip surgery. That leaves New England with Stevenson, Damien Harris and rookie Pierre Strong Jr. on the active roster and J.J. Taylor and rookie Kevin Harris on the practice squad. The Patriots also signed versatile skill-position player Lynn Bowden Jr., who has a history at running back, wide receiver and quarterback, to their practice squad last week.

But there’s a reason why New England hasn’t added another experienced running back since Montgomery went down. The Patriots feel that Stevenson can play on third down and that he’s ready to be given a shot in the role, per sources. The team is expected to give him a chance to replace Montgomery.

Stevenson was one of PFF’s highest-graded running backs last season, but most of his snaps came on first and second down as he earned an 81.1 overall grade (10th among qualified running backs) and 81.4 rushing grade (13th). His 3.15 yards after contact per attempt ranked 15th, and he finished eighth in missed tackles forced per attempt (.23).

The 2021 fourth-round pick played just 17 snaps last season on third down, and 10 of them came on third-and-short as Brandon Bolden (now with the Las Vegas Raiders) stepped into the pass-catching role after White’s injury. Stevenson’s seven snaps on third-and-3 or longer were actually the third-most by a Patriots rookie running back in the PFF era (since 2006).


Some notes:
  • First-round pick Laurence Maroney leads all Patriots rookie running backs with 45 snaps on third-and-3 or longer in 2006. 
  • BenJarvus Green-Ellis is second with just nine snaps in that situation. 
  • For further context, the most snaps by a Patriots running back on third-and-3 or longer in a single season since 2006 was 212 by James White in 2016. 
  • Shane Vereen also topped the 200 mark with 201 in 2014. 
  • Eighteen Patriots running backs have eclipsed Maroney’s mark of 45 snaps in a single season since 2006. 
  • Ty Montgomery had nine snaps on third-and-3 or longer in Sunday’s loss to the Miami Dolphins alone.

Stevenson still caught 18 passes on 21 targets for 156 yards as a rookie. The Patriots didn’t feel that he was ready to take over the third-down role when White suffered his injury in September. The team did feel Stevenson made progress throughout the season but that his true growth came this offseason.

The primary reason why rookie running backs aren’t trusted on third down is that they’re not ready in pass protection. A running back must read the opposing defense to decide whether to stay in to block and figure out who to block, or to release out of the backfield and into a route. 

“There’s just a lot of different looks that can be thrown at you,” White told PFF over the phone. “They just want to make sure guys are prepared before they put him in a tough situation. But I think the more you’re out there, the easier it is for you to do it and the faster you learn. They just tend not to put guys out there until they think they're ready and they feel like they can do it in practice. I think that's what matters most.”

Stevenson earned a 50.3 pass-blocking grade across 19 snaps last season. The Oklahoma product received only 67 total pass-blocking snaps in two seasons with the Sooners, and the process of staying in to protect the quarterback was a much simpler one. But he did earn a 78.2 pass-blocking grade on those limited snaps.

The Patriots aren’t alone in believing Stevenson can play on passing downs. Stevenson also feels he’s ready to be New England’s third-down back.

“I'm very confident at this point,” Stevenson told PFF on Thursday. “If they call my number, I’ll be ready.”

That’s because Stevenson has put in the work, starting last season. He spent this offseason getting leaner and working on his route-running skills. And White was already teaching him the nuances of pass protection as a rookie.

“Last year, I was learning more fundamental things, and he was trying to teach me more of the in-depth things. So now I’m still working on fundamentals, but just the things he was teaching me last year, I’m able to put that on the field and realize what he was talking about last year.”

And what are those in-depth things White was passing along to Stevenson?

“Just being aware of what the defense is doing,” Stevenson said. “So, just knowing who’s going to blitz and who can blitz on that play. If the star is topped by the safety, you’ve got to be aware of the star. Just being aware.”

White said that Stevenson doesn’t need to bury himself in film to know how to handle pass protection. He just needs to know how teams like to blitz in certain fronts.

“He's making huge strides,” White said. “He's getting a better feel of reading his keys, trusting what his eyes see, and I think that's the most important part of being a pass protector. Just trusting your eyes and reading your keys and then if your guy comes, just give the quarterback enough time to get rid of the football. He's getting better and better ever since last year, and ever since I went down they were using him more and more in the passing game. He's improved tremendously and he's very fit for the role, and he's a bigger guy as well. And he’s quick, so that helps him out a lot.”

Stevenson slimmed down from 232 pounds to 224 pounds by working on his nutrition this offseason. He also worked with private wide receiver coach David Robinson this offseason.

“Just getting more consistent running routes and playing off of peoples’ leverage,” Stevenson said. “And even when I’m in a bad spot to win a route, I can still win a route. That’s some James White talk right there.”

White laughed when he heard that. So, what’s it mean?

“You might not necessarily be in the best position to win on a route, and even if you’re not open by 5 yards, the quarterback can still throw it to you knowing you can make a contested catch and break a tackle and things of that nature,” White said. “So, it’s kind of like when a receiver will say, ‘even when I’m not open, I’m open. You can still throw it to me. I’m still going to make a play even if a guy has leverage on me. I’ll still find a way to win.’”

Stevenson has big shoes to fill if he’s going to be the long-term answer as the Patriots’ third-down back. White is a three-time Super Bowl champion and former team captain, and he could have been named Super Bowl LI MVP after catching 14 passes for 110 yards with three total touchdowns and a two-point conversion in that game. But it helps that Stevenson still has White in his ear.

“He’s never far from the building,” Stevenson said.

Stevenson didn’t receive a ton of opportunities in the passing game in college, but he did catch 28 passes on 33 targets for 298 yards with just two drops. His 2.03 yards per route run in college ranked 20th among 259 running backs with at least 20 targets between 2019 and 2020.

“Mondre has some good hands,” another one of Stevenson’s trainers, Josh Hicks, told PFF. “Nice physical back who can take on those blocks as they come in. He’ll be able to protect (Mac) Jones real good when it comes to third downs and passing situations.”

While the Patriots’ running back usage can be unpredictable, Stevenson already proved last season he has the size and chops to be used on early downs. Now he has the opportunity to increase his value in the passing game, as well.

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