The Patriots have typically approached the running back position with multiple players rotating in the backfield based on specific roles.
For example, Damien Harris led the Pats running backs in snaps last season with 424 total plays. Of those offensive snaps, 59 percent were runs, and 50 percent of the team's passing plays with Harris on the field were play-action attempts. Harris only played 25 total snaps on third down, where former Patriot running back Brandon Bolden took over as the primary pass-catching back (144 third-down snaps).
This season, the situational trends at running back could change. According to recent reports, Harris could miss multiple weeks due to a hamstring injury that he suffered in last Sunday's victory over the Lions. Furthermore, Patriot great James White retired during training camp, Ty Montgomery is on injured reserve, and Bolden followed former offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels to Vegas this past offseason.
With the Patriots down to two healthy running backs on the 53-man roster and undergoing a transition period in the third-down role, second-year pro Rhamondre Stevenson is now the guy.
In the first five games, Stevenson has been on the field for over 59 percent of the team's offensive snaps. Unlike Harris a year ago, Stevenson has played more often in passing situations than on run plays, with a 57-43 split, and has already played on 31 third downs.
By Patriots standards, the Oklahoma product is developing into a three-down factor back in his second season, and his role will only increase from here after a career performance on Sunday.
New England only dressed two running backs for Sunday's game against the Lions, so Stevenson was their only option after Harris's injury, and he didn't disappoint.
The 24-year-old set a new career-high with 161 rushing yards on 25 attempts and caught two passes for 14 yards. Out of his career-best rushing total, 111 of Stevenson's yards came after contact as the Pats running back forced nine missed tackles by the Lions defense, per PFF.
"You have to give him a ton of credit. With Damien out, we only carried two backs for the game, and he put it all on his shoulders," head coach Bill Belichick told reporters following Sunday's win. "He does a great job with the ball in his hands. He is a strong runner, but he can make people miss. He is a really good football player. Really a good football player. So glad we have him. Had a couple of blitz pickup plays right up the middle where he stepped up there. He is a good all-around back. Love him. Love him."
Belichick's effusive praise for Stevenson is well-deserved. On the season, Stevenson is averaging the second-most rushing yards after contact (4.24) and is seventh in Pro Football Focus's elusive rating, which measures how hard a running back is to tackle with the ball in his hands. At nearly 230 pounds, Stevenson both juke out of tackle attempts and run over defenders thanks to a rare skill set for a running back of his size.
Although Stevenson thrived with an increased workload last week, his breakout performance wasn't a surprise to those around him every day, such as running backs coach Vinnie Sunseri.
"It's no surprise. He goes out there and does exactly what he's asked to do every single day and does it well," Sunseri told Patriots.com. "I love the kid. He plays hard. He does everything the right way, he prepares the right way, and practices hard."
"He's really grown as a player and is obviously super talented. For us, just to get him out there and be able to play a bunch of snaps is a credit to him and his conditioning," Senior Football Advisor Matt Patricia added.
Along with improving his route-running and becoming a go-to option on screen passes, Stevenson has earned more playing time in passing situations by improving in blitz pickup.
Due to the complexity of the role in New England's system, where backs are often challenged mentally with dual reads and physically to take on blitzing defenders, it takes time for running backs to earn playing time on third downs. But Stevenson is picking things up quickly.
"We've given him those opportunities, and he has taken it. He follows his rules, he's very assignment-sound, and his technique has gotten better every single week in blitz protection. Not everything's perfect but he's getting better," Sunseri said.
Based on a report from NFL Network's Tom Pelissero, the Patriots will likely do some roster shuffling at the position, with Harris "likely to miss multiple games" due to a hamstring injury. The Pats are only currently carrying three running backs on the active roster, and rookie Pierre Strong was a healthy inactive vs. the Lions. New England also has J.J. Taylor and first-year running back Kevin Harris on their practice squad as options for game-day elevations.
Whether the team makes do with in-house options or adds another running back to the roster, Stevenson's role will likely stay the same as the clear-cut RB1 on the depth chart.
For the first time in a long time, the Patriots have an emerging all-purpose weapon in their backfield.