FOXBOROUGH — Rhamondre Stevenson has had a lot dumped on his wide, muscular shoulders this season. He’s responded positively to every challenge.
There likely will be another big test Thursday night against the Bills, with Stevenson poised to take the lion’s share of the backfield snaps with Damien Harris, his tag-team partner, nursing a thigh injury.
In just a season and a half, Stevenson has developed into one of the league’s most complete backs. Always a bulldozing runner, Stevenson has taken big steps in the passing game as both a receiver and blocker.
Becoming proficient in pass protection is not something that happens quickly in the NFL. The first skill is studying schemes so you know where free blitzers might come from. The second thing you need is the willingness to take on those blitzers — who, more often than not, are significantly bigger guys.
The Patriots have a nice history of backs who have developed into solid blockers. Bill Belichick referenced one of the best when asked about Stevenson this week.
“He’s had a couple of really good plays in pass protection. James White-level plays,” said the coach. “Seeing things, making adjustments, that kind of thing. He’s been a big help for us in that area of the game, whether it’s been blitz pickup, flare control, catching the ball, all of the above.”
The compliment meant a lot to Stevenson, who leads the Patriots in rushing (680 yards) and receptions (50).
“From where I started from last year, just remembering how little I knew and how unproductive I really was in the pass pro game,” he said. “So just making those steps and just learning and seeing it translate to the field. It feels good.”
Stevenson said he’s grateful for “the people around me, the stay on me constantly” that made sure he put in the time and effort to become well rounded.
“I put in a lot of work,” he said.
Former running backs coach Ivan Fears was one of those first, preaching voices Stevenson heard after he was drafted.
“He broke everything down to the science almost,” said Stevenson. “Just [having] everyone knowing exactly what to do, why we’re doing it, and just knowing the reasons behind everything we’re doing. So, he was very instrumental in everything.”
Stevenson’s ability to churn out yards on the ground, and especially via the air, figures to be a critical component against the Bills.
In the past, Buffalo has deployed its linebackers closer to the line of scrimmage against receiving backs in an attempt to throw off the timing with the quarterback. It’s been a successful strategy.
“They try to literally get you at the line of scrimmage [and] put hands on you so you can’t get into your route,” Stevenson said. “So, it’s going to be a challenge. No one’s ever really played us like that.”
In order to counteract Buffalo’s style, Stevenson said he must run crisper, more disciplined routes to give Mac Jones a viable checkdown option when downfield routes don’t open quickly.
The Bills have struggled at times with tackling, and this is another area where Stevenson can make some hay. He is adept at making the first guy miss and he’ll occasionally take multiple defenders for a ride.
No matter how the Patriots get him the ball, Stevenson will need to shine in order to have a chance against the Bills.
“Whatever the offense needs him to do, whether that’s play wide receiver — he does it all,” said linebacker Ja’Whaun Bentley. “I’m glad he’s on my team. I’ll just say that.”
Harris missed his second straight practice Monday. Offensive tackle Isaiah Wynn (foot) was the only other member of the 53-man roster not to participate. In addition, a half-dozen players were limited: center David Andrews (thigh), offensive tackle Yodny Cajuste (calf), receivers Jakobi Meyers (shoulder) and DeVante Parker (knee), cornerback/return specialist Marcus Jones (ankle), and cornerback Jalen Mills (groin).
Bills quarterback Josh Allen (right elbow) is still on the practice report, but he was a full participant. Five Bills missed practice because of an illness: safeties Damar Hamlin and Jaquan Johnson, cornerback Dane Jackson, receiver Khalil Shakir, and tight end Quintin Morris.
Milestone appearance for Devin McCourty
Devin McCourty is set to start his 200th game Thursday, and Patriots owner Robert Kraft interrupted the safety’s Monday news conference to present McCourty with a collage made up of pictures from his starts. “I can’t think of a better leader or ambassador of the team except maybe for the guy to my left,” said Kraft, nodding to Matthew Slater. “But I want to thank Devin and congratulate him and tell him how special it is to all of us.” The team also played a video featuring McCourty’s family, and teammates past and present. “It’s been a heck of a journey and I’m enjoying every moment of it,” McCourty said . . . Matthew Judon is second among outside linebackers in Pro Bowl voting with 61,617 votes.