One of the biggest frustrations of the 2021 season thus far for the New England Patriots has been the complete lack of a run game. In the pre-season, there was an embarrassment of riches at the RB position with 6 guys having a legitimate chance to make the roster and contribute. It was clear that Damien Harris was the lead back and James White would definitely have a roster spot as a receiving back, but after them there was rookie Rhamondre Stevenson, J.J. Taylor, Brandon Bolden, and Sony Michel who were all solid RBs. The once deep and exciting group, has turned into a thin and disappointing one really quickly.
Seeing that there was not room on the roster for 6 RBs, Bill Belichick sent Sony Michel out west to the Los Angeles Rams the day prior to their 3rd and final pre-season game. It became clear that Bill wanted to give an opportunity for the others in the group to take some snaps and Stevenson and Taylor had both had some nice runs in the pre-season, so he hedged and traded Michel which at the time made sense. The season started off solidly on the ground for the Patriots, with a 23-carry, 100-yard performance from Harris in the 1-pt loss to the Miami Dolphins (30 carries as a team – White 4, Jonnu Smith 1, Bolden 1, and Stevenson 1). There was an unfortunate late-game fumble from Harris that clouded his performance, but overall it was solid.
Facing the Jets in week 2, the Patriots had a decent game on the ground with Harris rushing 16 times for 62-yards and White picking up 20-yards on 5 carries. The workload was lighter, only 24 carries as a team, but the balance was still as expected with Harris leading the group. Week 3 against the New Orleans Saints is where things went bad and in a hurry. Against the 4th best run-defense in football, the Patriots weren’t able to get the much going on the ground, partially because they were trailing the entire game. The leading rusher in the game was Mac Jones, with 28-yards on 6 carries and Harris only had 14-yards on 6 carries (2.3 yards per carry). Bolden had 3 rushes for -1-yard and Taylor and White had 1 rush each. Unfortunately for the Pats, James White was carted off the field and his season was over with a hip injury.
Coming off the White injury, the Patriots had the most anticipated regular season game in history against Tom Brady and the Tampa Bay Bucs and the run game was absolutely atrocious. As a team, the Pats had -1-yard for the game, with the only positive rush coming from WR Nelson Agholor for 4-yards. They only attempted 8 rushes and were absolutely crushed on 7 of the 8. When your team has 6 rushes from 3 RBs that amount to -4-yards, you’ve had a miserable day. Good thing for the Pats, their opponent in week 5, the Houston Texans, would be easier to run on.
The Pats began to right the run-game ship this past Sunday against a mediocre Texans defense. J.J Taylor was inactive, but the Pats rushed 30 times for 136 yards, 25 attempts from Harris and Stevenson. While they still didn’t look great and Harris had another fumble, they took advantage of the Texans who have allowed the 7th most rushing yards to opponents on the season. In a bizarrely close and uncomfortable game, the Pats snuck out of Texas with a 3pt victory on a walk-off Nick Folk field goal, but no one felt good about the performance. During the game, Harris sustained a rib injury and has barely practiced (as of Thursday).
If Harris is inactive or limited, the Patriots enter the game against Dallas extremely thin at RB. Stevenson would presumably pick up the slack for Harris, but then it’s really only Brandon Bolden left on the depth chart. J.J. Taylor was played very little and it’s unclear why (besides his fumble), but could be an option just in case. The once 6-deep running back core is down to 3 or maybe 4 and isn’t going to have an easy time running on the Cowboys who have allowed the 5th fewest rushing yards against this year. Oh yeah, and the Patriots are still without 3 of their 5 offensive linemen due to injuries and COVID-related absences.
If I were a betting man, I’m not taking the Patriots run game to turn it around this week. They have struggled mightily against strong run-defenses and at best, their lead RB will not be 100% with a rib injury that I imagine will hurt every time he gets hit and at worst, he won’t play. Harris and Stevenson have 3 combined fumbles in 5 games, which is not what the Patriots, or any team, want to see. This game could be a big opportunity for Stevenson to show he can be a lead back going forward, but it will not be easy. I’m predicting fewer than 70 yards on the ground this week, so Mac Jones has to be ready to throw 40+ times if the Pats want to have a chance to topple the 4-1 Cowboys.