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It was supposed to feel like something of a blow to the New England Patriots on Friday afternoon when they downgraded starting running back Damien Harris to out for their Saturday night game against the Indianapolis Colts.
The Patriots, you see, have supported the development of rookie quarterback Mac Jones with a running game and bully-ball style that relies on its top back to be the most significant part of the NFL’s No. 9 rated rushing attack.
So with Harris out because of a hamstring injury and the opponent Colts threatening to use New England’s own medicine against them with NFL leading rusher Jonathan Taylor, the situation might have seemed kind of uncomfortable for the Patriots.
Except for rookie Rhamondre Stevenson.
And veteran Brandon Bolden.
Stevenson is expected to make only his second career start while Bolden is expected to fill New England’s role of third down back against the Colts.
And Patriots coach Bill Belichick is apparently quite fine with that. We know this because the usually reserved Belichick was glowing with praise for both players this week.
“I’ve been impressed by Rhamondre’s growth,” Belichick said. “He’s very coachable. When you ask him to do something he really tries hard to do it the way you want him to do it. And he’s improved greatly in every area of the game.
“He’s a player that’s gained a lot of trust and confidence from his teammates, certainly from the coaching staff, really in every area — running game, passing game, ball security, blitz pickup, run reads, run technique, so forth … He just gets better every day he goes out on the field. He’s been great to work with and has really shown a lot of, as I said, improvement, consistency, consistency in his daily routine.
“He’s just one of those players that’s just gotten a lot better and he’s pretty good to start with. But he’s just gotten a lot better in terms of adjusting his skills and his game to the team that he’s on and what we’ve asked him to do.”
That’s a mouthful for Belichick and especially so when you consider Stevenson was sort of in the coaching staff’s doghouse earlier in the season when he was inactive three games after the regular-season opener.
Stevenson fumbled and had pass protection problems against the Miami Dolphins in that first game.
But that Stevenson is apparently not the same one who will take the field against the Colts.
“When I first got here I was going through a little, couple of growing pains, things like that,” he said. “So they’re on me. It was about all sorts of things…It wasn’t anything that’s out of the ordinary, it’s just things to make me better. So I appreciate that. And I think it worked.”
That’s clear because Stevenson was getting carries even before the Harris injury. And in doing that, he was earning playing time the Patriots don’t often give a rookie running back. In fact, Harris and James White were among past New England rookies that didn’t get opportunities as rookies.
“There was a lot of that when I first got drafted, that I wouldn’t play as a rookie,” Stevenson noted. “I really didn’t listen to that and just put my head down and worked. I’m playing probably more than any other rookie running back so I’m very grateful for that but I put the work in so I feel like I deserve it.”
Part of Stevenson’s improvement is indeed about practicing and learning from coaches. But Bolden, in his ninth NFL season, also gets credit for the younger player’s improvement.
“He makes the game that much easier,” Stevenson said. “He’s like that older brother to me — on the field, off the field — I can talk to him about anything. He is the older guy in the room and knows the system better than anybody else and just, in that regard, he helps me out a lot.”
It’s not a secret Bolden is one of the Patriots’ unheralded team leaders. He’s always been a core special teams player and this season when he was asked to take on greater duties on passing downs, he declined to lessen his load on special teams.
That’s a sure way to Belichick’s heart, who calls that move “an inspiration to us all.”
“Brandon’s one of the best and always has been,” Belichick said. “He’s always about football, but he has a nice way of putting a smile on his face, cracking a joke, pointing out a mistake that I’ve made, whatever.
“He’s a good personality that blends that serious, competitive, business side with enjoying the process and enjoying what we do and giving us some of his best performances at the most critical times and biggest games when we need them most.”
So meet the Patriots new running back combo this week. Maybe it’s not Jonathan Taylor.
But the Patriots believe they’ll be fine.
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