After two weeks of tough sledding for the Patriots on the ground, New England finally got their rushing attack rolling in their win over the Jets.
For an offense that needs a potent running game this season, the Patriots managed only 164 rushing yards on 47 attempts in their first two games, ranking 27th in rushing average (3.0) and 26th in expected points added per rush (-0.24) by running backs, despite adding veteran Ezekiel Elliott to Rhamondre Stevenson in the backfield. With several injuries leading to constant shuffling along the offensive line, the Pats were also dead-last in run-blocking grade via Pro Football Focus (39.1).
However, the momentum started to swing in a more positive direction last Sunday in the Meadowlands, where the Pats notched their first victory of the season with an improved rushing attack. The run blocking improved to a 72.4 grade, fifth-best in Week 3, while the Elliott and Stevenson duo piled up a season-best 139 combined rushing yards on 35 carries.
The blocking improvements and tweaks by offensive coordinator Bill O'Brien to feature more gap schemes (20) and lead blockers featuring tight end Pharaoh Brown as a traditional fullback have the arrow pointing upward on a vital piece to the puzzle. If the Patriots want to turn their offensive fortunes around, it starts on the ground, and both the production and film showed breadcrumbs that the rushing production is coming.
Although the total rushing output improved, the Patriots are still trying to get the 2022 version of lead-back Rhamondre Stevenson. In his second season, Stevenson broke out with 1,461 scrimmage yards and six touchdowns, leading all running backs by averaging 3.81 yards after contact per rush as the team's most productive offensive playmaker.
This season, in a small sample size of 46 carries through three games, Stevenson ranks 37th out of 44 qualified running backs in yards per rush (2.9). Furthermore, the Pats running back is averaging only 1.8 yards after contact and has gained a league-low -36 rushing yards over expected between the tackles (+134 RYOE in 2022, third-best in NFL). The Patriots offense needs to move the ball any way it can, regardless of who's carrying the rock, but New England is better off when Stevenson is in a groove.
Speaking to Patriots.com, we tried to get to the bottom of Stevenson's slow start by consulting with the Patriots running back this week.
One theory that was even on Stevenson's mind is that he hasn't been decisive enough to get downhill through the line of scrimmage, dancing too much in the backfield before hitting the hole. The Patriots running back's average speed at the line of scrimmage in the first three games this year is down compared to last season (9.43 MPH to 8.36 MPH). Stevenson also averaged 1.18 yards before contact on his 210 carries in his breakout second season, while this season, that number is down to 0.87 yards, according to NextGen Stats.
Stevenson isn't gaining as much speed in the early stages of the rush, likely because he's being contacted earlier than usual, making it harder for him to break tackles. Plus, Stevenson is also seeing an increase in shotgun runs in Bill O'Brien's offense (41.4% to 54.3%). In shotgun, the running back essentially starts from a standstill rather than coming from behind the quarterback with a head of steam.
Following another "down" game by his standards in terms of efficiency (19 rushes for 59 yards), Stevenson said that he watched all 46 of his rushing attempts over the last few days to do some self-scouting.
"I went back and watched all the games. I don't think I really made any wrong reads and things like that. But that was on my mind. I thought I was being a little too patient behind the line. But, no, I think I'm reading it well, reading it like I always do. It's going to come. Third game of the season, so I think it's just going to come."
On Monday, head coach Bill Belichick praised Stevenson's vision and ability to find the holes between the tackles, adding another voice that doesn't believe reading blocks is an issue.
"I think Rhamondre reads blocks really well, probably as good as anybody we've had here," Belichick said. "He's got really good vision. He can find space in the defense, and he's very good at lateral cuts and getting downhill and running with power. So, yeah, I think his vision is really good."
To the shotgun versus under-center differential, Stevenson said there are advantages to both alignments. He can get that head of steam from under center, or the "dot," as Stevenson calls it. But the Pats RB likes gun runs, too, because he can get a clearer read on the linebackers. For what it's worth, the stats say Stevenson has been more effective on gun runs.
Another theory Stevenson mentioned earlier this week takes us back to the yards after contact metrics. The 25-year-old was excellent at generating yards after contact in his first two seasons. But he has only forced six missed tackles on 46 attempts so far in 2023 (13%), after producing a missed tackle on over 19% of his attempts in 2022 (40 on 210 attempts).
"I just have to get back to making people miss and breaking some more tackles. I didn't break a couple tackles I think I should've run through," Stevenson said on Wednesday. Adding in our conversation, "First, it's opportunities just getting into the second level, getting those one-on-ones with the defensive backs and things like that."
The area where Stevenson was hard on himself appeared in one particular instance last week. Under O'Brien, the Patriots have majored in a scheme called "gap" or "duo" in football terms. The blocking scheme calls for two double teams on the interior, with the backside tackle single-blocking the defensive end. The scheme is designed to have the double teams generate movement, and then once the linebackers come downhill at the doubles, the blockers will react accordingly to pick up the 'backers.
Stevenson will read up the linebackers to see where they fill from the second level and then find the open gap. Above, Stevenson correctly reads the linebackers flowing inside to cut to his right to get into some space. After running through an initial tackle attempt, Jets safety Jordan Whitehead makes the stop on an eight-yard gain. Last season, those eight-yard gains became bigger gains because Stevenson would usually break Whitehead's tackle.
The Patriots running back also had a slower training camp than usual as the team took it easy on him after accumulating 279 touches. Stevenson spoke openly about wearing down last season, and along with a slower ramp-up, he is now splitting carries with Elliott.
"I think that's safe to say for any running back," Stevenson said of getting into an early rhythm by being fed the rock. "Getting those reps under your belt in games, getting behind that offensive line, seeing how that defense is moving around, and just wearing the defense down. Getting those reps back to back and getting warm is a big deal."
For now, Stevenson is understandably staying the course with his typical running style instead of overreacting to a three-game sample size. From this perspective, a combination of factors have contributed to a slower start, both blocking and Stevenson's own critique of breaking more tackles. But there's no reason to panic just yet.
"I feel like it's a long season. I'm just staying down, doing what I'm told, doing what I'm supposed to do, and making sure my tracks are right on each run," Stevenson said before adding that his production will come eventually.
The Patriots lead-back, his head coach, and the rest of the coaching staff don't seem concerned about Stevenson's slow statistical start to the season.