The Patriots are en route to Pittsburgh for a mid-week matchup with the Steelers and have ruled out four players for Thursday night's game.
New England will face the Steelers without lead-back Rhamondre Stevenson (ankle), wide receiver Demario Douglas (concussion), wide receiver Kayshon Boutte (shoulder), and CB Shaun Wade (illness). They've been ruled out. The Patriots listed four players as questionable: DL Christian Barmore (shoulder), OT Trent Brown (ankle/hand), WR DeVante Parker (knee), and WR JuJu Smith-Schuster (ankle).
The injury to Stevenson is the latest big-name Patriot to suffer an injury that will keep him sidelined for "a few weeks," according to reports. Although their record doesn't reflect it, the Pats rushing attack was rounding into form before Stevenson's injury. Since Week 6, New England ranks second in EPA per rush. However, they'll need to keep their running game rolling without their best running back.
Veteran RB Ezekiel Elliott will take on most of the workload. Elliott had a season-high 21 touches for 92 scrimmage yards, with Stevenson leaving last week's game vs. the Chargers early. Elliott has run hard as a Patriot, averaging 2.5 yards after contact on his 112 attempts. The veteran has also been an effective screen back, making a slick one-handed catch before breaking multiple tackles to gain 23 yards on a slip screen last week.
However, Elliott's work in pass protection needs to improve with a larger role. He allowed a season-high three quarterback pressures in the loss to Los Angeles, including a critical mental error where safety Derwin James was unblocked for a fourth-down sack. With more snaps coming in the passing game, Elliott needs to be better as a pass protector.
Behind the former Cowboys and Ohio State star, the Patriots have WR/RB Ty Montgomery and RB JaMycal Hasty on the 53-man roster. Hasty has been inactive for every game since he was claimed on waivers in mid-November, while Montgomery only has three rush attempts this season. The Pats other option is elevating second-year RB Kevin Harris, who has yet to be elevated this season.
Harris showed some flashes as a power back in limited opportunities as a rookie. In a two-week stretch where he got 13 carries last season, Harris broke seven tackles and flashed his power on a 14-yard touchdown run against Arizona. With the team viewing Hasty and Montgomery as top special teams contributors, it wouldn't be surprising to see the Patriots elevate Harris to back up Elliott on Thursday night.
At wide receiver, the Patriots have four receivers listed on their final injury report. Along with ruling out Boutte and Douglas, veterans DeVante Parker (knee) and JuJu Smith-Schuster (ankle) are officially questionable. Although there aren't any guarantees on a short week, one would expect Parker and Smith-Schuster to play. With second-year quarterback Bailey Zappe expected to start, Zappe's top skill group projects to be Elliott, Parker, Smith-Schuster, Tyquan Thornton, and the Pats three tight ends (Brown, Henry, Gesicki). After running a watered-down offense last week, the hope here is the continuity will allow offensive coordinator Bill O'Brien to call more complex schemes versus a stout Steelers defense.
Lastly, head coach Bill Belichick told reporters that veteran OL Riley Reiff (knee) will not be activated from injured reserve this week. Reiff's window to return will expire, meaning he's out for the rest of the season, with Belichick noting three setbacks Reiff had with his injured knee, which occurred in the preseason finale in August. Starting left tackle Trent Brown's status is also up in the air, as Brown was very limited in Tuesday's practice.
Brown will likely suit up while continuing to rotate with veteran Conor McDermott at left tackle. The rest of the Patriots O-Line projects to remain the same: LT Brown/McDermott, LG Cole Strange, C David Andrews, RG Sidy Sow, and RT Mike Onwenu.
Defensively, the Patriots are relatively healthy on the active roster. New England should get DL Deatrich Wise back, as Wise doesn't carry an injury designation this week. DL Christian Barmore (shoulder) is the only defensive player with a questionable designation. Barmore has been playing through bumps and bruises all season, so he'll probably play in Pittsburgh.
Due to the Thursday night game, the Patriots have until Thursday at 4 p.m. ET to elevate players from the practice squad. QB Malik Cunningham and RB Kevin Harris are prime candidates to be standard elevations.
The Patriots will face the Steelers at Acrisure Stadium in Pittsburgh with kickoff at 8:15 p.m. ET on Thursday night.