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Rookie runners charging ahead for Patriots

Two new members of the Patriots 2022 rookie class stepped to the forefront against the Cardinals with a late-season push that could give New England's offense a needed injection of fresh legs down the stretch.

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Rhamondre Stevenson has done it all for the Patriots this season as injuries have decimated a once deep position group that started training camp off running six quality players deep. After James White's retirement, what appears to have been a season-ending injury to Ty Montgomery in Week 1, and a collection of injuries that have held Damien Harris out of four games, including vs. Arizona, the team leaned heavily on the second-year back Stevenson and he showed impressive development of his overall game, posting 1,127 yards from scrimmage while being as close to an every-down back as the Patriots have had in recent memory.

That's why when Stevenson went down with an ankle injury on Monday night uncertainty filled the air as rookies Kevin Harris and Pierre Strong were thrust into action after seeing just five total carries combined through the first 13 games of the season. In an exciting development, both delivered big plays that helped the Patriots break their two-game losing streak and get back to their winning ways with a sudden jolt of youthful exuberance for the offensive backfield.

For the game, Harris finished with 26 yards on eight carries, with a standout 14-yard touchdown run that broke a long-running red-zone cold streak. Strong was even more effective, rushing for 70 yards on five carries with a long of 44 yards, while also adding two catches for 10 yards. With their running back depth reduced to almost nothing in a must-win game, the rookies came through, both scoring the first touchdowns of their careers and setting up intriguing options for the final four games of the season that could see their usage continue to climb.

"Yeah. It was great," said Bill Belichick following the game of the rookie's rushing performance. "They got an opportunity and made some big plays. We'll see if they can sustain it, show up week after week and people will start looking for them."

Though Stevenson was spotted without a cast or crutches and seemed generally okay according to reports from the post-game locker room, the potential flashed by Harris and Strong is a good argument for continuing to keep them more involved than they've been early in the season. The miles are adding up on Stevenson, but even more so, the two rookies showed some new dimensions they can bring to the offense.

"The thing I told (running back Kevin Harris) was, 'it's like SEC football, so go out there, do your thing, you've played against really good teams and that's what it is," said Mac Jones following the game. "Pierre, it's the same thing, 'you're a young guy, but really fast.' He uses his speed well. They did a great job and they're going to have to step up again. The rookies did a great job. I'm super proud of them and they just want to help the team win and that's what we're trying to do."

The rookies weren't without their rookie moments, as a botched handoff between Jones and Harris nearly cost the team points before halftime, but Harris' touchdown run and Strong's 44-yarder were the prime examples of why New England invested two Day 3 picks on the backs. Harris' hard-charging style and Strong's breakaway burst were welcome additions and ones the team desperately needed to help pull out the win.

"It means the world for us to both make our first career touchdowns," said Strong. "We have to thank the O-line. We are going to continue to praise each other and just come out and make plays when our number is called."

Strong continued, pointing out that he and Harris stayed patient knowing their chance would come despite extremely limited opportunities earlier in this season.

"Coach (Bill Belichick) doesn't make mistakes. He knows what he's doing and wouldn't be in the position he is in. So I just always stay getting better every day."

Though we're in December with just four games to go, the emergence of Strong and Harris adds another layer of promise to a rookie class that has been heavily involved this season. Marcus Jones continues to shine in all three phases, while the rest of the class, including the undrafted players, have had their time to shine at various points throughout the season.

It's a major reason for optimism going forward into the final playoff push and into 2023.

"Everybody's got a role, and when their number is called hopefully they'll come through for us," said Belichick when asked about the rookie class. "These guys work hard. They all do, but certainly it's good to see some of the young guys and even (DB Brenden) Schooler, (DL DeMarcus) Mitchell in the kicking game and obviously the guys that scored the touchdowns or intercepted passes. They're easy to spot. (QB Bailey) Zappe had some contributions a little bit earlier in the year when he played. It takes everybody. I thought we had that tonight. We had everybody pulling tonight."

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