Playing on a short week in Pittsburgh, the Patriots have elevated two players from the practice squad for Thursday night's matchup with the Steelers at Acrisure Stadium.
Due to the Thursday night game, New England had until 4 p.m. ET to announce any practice squad elevations. The announcement came with the news the Patriots have elevated QB Malik Cunningham and RB Kevin Harris. Cunningham is being elevated for the second straight week, meaning he has one more standard elevation, while Harris was elevated for the first time this season. The second-year running back could make his season debut in Pittsburgh.
Starting with the quarterbacks, the Patriots are projected to start Bailey Zappe for the second consecutive game. Since Cunningham was elevated from the practice squad, the Patriots won't have the option to use an emergency third quarterback. Like last week, if they want all three quarterbacks active, Zappe, Mac Jones, and Cunningham will take up roster spots on the active game-day roster.
Despite using a standard elevation on Cunningham last week, the undrafted rookie didn't play a single offensive snap in the loss to the Chargers in Week 13. The Pats had a package of plays prepared in the game plan for Cunningham at quarterback, but the Louisville product never had his number called. Cunningham was also ready to play wide receiver in a pinch.
In Week 6, Cunningham played six snaps in a loss to the Raiders in Las Vegas. However, the first-year QB/WR struggled in two snaps at quarterback, netting -4 yards in two snaps at QB. Cunningham played four snaps at receiver but wasn't targeted. Over the last few weeks, Cunningham has taken more practice reps at quarterback, with reporters seeing the undrafted rookie throw passes as the backup behind Bailey Zappe during positional drills last week.
Ultimately, it's hard to get excited about Cunningham having a role in Thursday night's game until we see it. His NFL debut, where he was briefly signed to the 53-man roster, was a dud, then he didn't get into the game last week on his first standard elevation. Although it would be fun to see if Cunningham's dual-threat abilities would translate into a regular-season game after he flashed his talents in the preseason opener against the Texans, the Patriots coaching staff has been reluctant to feature Cunningham as either a quarterback or receiver.
After being shut out last week, the rumblings for Cunningham to get a chance to play will grow louder if the struggles of the 32nd-scoring offense continue in Pittsburgh on Thursday night.
As for the Patriots backfield, New England used a standard elevation on second-year running back Kevin Harris because top lead-back Rhamondre Stevenson (ankle) was ruled out on the final injury report on Wednesday with what's reportedly a high-ankle sprain that could sideline him for "a few weeks," according to multiple reports. Given the Patriots record at 2-10, you wonder if we'll see Stevenson again this season.
Harris appeared in five games during his rookie season. The power back had some good moments, with increased carries in Weeks 13 and 14 in 2022. Harris broke seven tackles on 13 attempts in a west-coast stretch against the Cardinals and Raiders, including a 14-yard touchdown run where he ran through multiple tackles to find pay dirt.
The Patriots will mostly rely on veteran backup Ezekiel Elliott. Elliott, who is off the injury report after nursing a thigh injury last week, tallied a season-high 21 touches for 92 scrimmage yards, with Stevenson leaving last week's loss to the Chargers early. Elliott has been a capable between-the-tackles back, adding 2.5 yards per rush after contact, while the former Cowboys and Ohio State star has been one of the most productive backs on screen passes this season.
Still, Harris could be Elliott's top backup as someone who can get what is blocked. Besides running through defenders and finishing runs with power, Harris won't elude many tacklers. But he proved to be a serviceable downhill runner in his limited opportunities as a rookie.
On Wednesday, the Patriots ruled out four players on their final injury report. Along with Stevenson (ankle), New England also ruled out WR Kayshon Boutte (shoulder), WR Demario Douglas (concussion), and CB Shaun Wade (illness). The Patriots only need two more game-day inactives for Thursday night's tilt against Pittsburgh.
The Steelers will host the Patriots at Acrisure Stadium at 8:15 p.m. ET on Thursday night.