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Replay: Patriots Unfiltered Wed Feb 21 - 04:00 PM | Thu Feb 22 - 09:55 AM

3 Young Patriots Who Seized Opportunity vs. Chiefs

Three young Patriots made the most of their playing time bumps against the Chiefs and will look to carry that momentum forward through the final three games of the season.

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The Patriots lost to the Chiefs on Sunday, but the injury attrition that befell them in the contest could be even more consequential over the team's final three games. Even without the potentially significant injuries to players like Cole Strange, Hunter Henry and Conor McDermott, opportunities have arisen for some of the younger players on the roster here in December, asNew England will hope to get some more experience that can hopefully be carried over into 2024.

Alex Austin was a surprise starter at cornerback after Shaun Wade was ruled inactive and J.C. Jackson was not available for undisclosed reasons. The blow to their depth left New England with just three cornerbacks, Austin, Jonathan Jones and Myles Bryant, available and it provided to be valuable experience for the recently added rookie.

Austin was drafted this spring in the seventh round by the Bills, but was cut at the end of training camp and spent the early part of his year with the Texans. Projected as a smart and versatile cornerback out of Oregon State, Austin played 13 snaps against the Steelers last week before playing 100 percent of the snaps against the Chiefs.

"Personally, I feel like I had a great game, but there's always things to clean up," said Austin following the game. "You're never as good as you think and never as bad, so looking forward to coming in tomorrow and breaking down the film with the coaches and getting my coaching points."

"We all had some good moments, and there are certainly things that we can learn from and do better," said Bill Belchick on Monday when asked to assess Austin's play. "I thought he played competitively."

Austin conceded that he didn't know he was going to get the first start of his career until just before game time.

"I felt ready for the opportunity," said Austin. "I've been grinding for a long time to get this opportunity. I just was blessed enough to be able to get out there and get that start against a great opponent, a great quarterback, a great offense. So, I felt good, and I felt confident to go out there with a group of guys that I'm battling with every day. The veteran guys made things easier for me out there with communication, and it was just fun to build that camaraderie today with the guys."

Last week Austin nearly picked up an interception as he finally got his first game opportunity with the Pats, and this week rookie safety Marte Mapu didn't let his own opportunity go by without cashing in on his first takeaway, delivering a second-quarter interception that set up the Patriots deep in Chiefs territory.

The third-round selection played just eight defensive snaps over the previous five games but saw a bump against Kansas City with 15. It's still a far cry from the over 100 defensive snaps he played over the four-game stretch from Week 2 - 5, but a forceful takeaway should bode well for Mapu's future opportunities over the last three games.

Mapu chalked up his rollercoaster season to the ins and outs of playing a gameplan defense that changes each week.

"I mean from the beginning it's always been a game plan team from our perspective and I just trust the coaches to put me in when I am needed," said Mapu. "We also have great safeties, great linebackers, that have also been playing at a really high level and defense that has been playing at a high level, so I don't really feel any way in terms of whether I am playing or not. I just want us to win."

Mapu has flirted with both safety and linebacker roles here in his rookie season and is an intriguing option to experiment with. He can be deployed in several ways and has the length and speed to make a difference in the middle of the field as he showed on his interception.

All season long his teammates have praised his smarts, and on Sunday he took a nice step forward that showed the fruits of his behind-the-scenes labor.

"I'm enjoying the way he's started talking to me," said linebacker Jahlani Tavai of Mapu. "But today, he took full advantage of his opportunities, and he capitalized on a great play, and I just hope that he continues to grow and develop in this defense."

Finally comes the longest-tenured Patriot of the trio, second-year running back Kevin Harris, who has spent the season toiling on the practice squad. Elevated for a second-straight game, Harris made the most of his limited opportunity, trucking through the KC defense for an 18-yard touchdown run that made things interesting in the fourth quarter.

Last year, Harris appeared in five games with 18 carries for 52 yards, and picked up his first touchdown against the Cardinals. It's been a long 2023 as he's awaited his next carries, but his touchdown run alone showed he can make plays and deserves further chances.

"Kevin Harris worked hard all year," said Bill Belichick on Monday morning. "He's really done a good job for us on the scout teams, and not just offensively, but on special teams, and then got an opportunity to play yesterday, and did a good job of stepping in there and giving us some solid play."

"I mean, you know it's hard to get carries when you've got Zeke [Ezekiel Elliott] and 'Mondre [Rhamondre Stevenson] in front of you," said Harris after the game. "I was given the opportunity to get in there today and I made the most of it."

"Kevin, I mean he's been working his tail off all year," said Elliott of his young teammate. "He's a guy who for a lot of years had to take a lot of scout team reps by himself. Never complained, always came to work, always showed up. We saw him reap the benefits of that."

Harris credited Elliott for his impact on the running back room in general during his first season in New England.

"He's played the position a lot so he helped me stay on my keys and stuff," said Harris. "He gave me encouragement, told me to keep going and keep running. They obviously have very good guys, so it's good learning from him."

As the Patriots wind down the 2023 season with games at Denver and Buffalo before closing things out at home against the Jets, Austin, Mapu and Harris are three young players with still plenty to play for, potentially emerging and making a case for the roles they'll compete for next summer.

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