Sunday 7: Rhamondre Stevenson producing one of the more unique seasons in Patriots history

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1 – Plenty of aspects of both the coaching and player execution on the Patriots’ offense leave plenty to be desired this season, but one standout who’s certainly played better than could have been expected is second-year running back Rhamondre Stevenson.

Through 12 games, the versatile Stevenson would have to be considered New England’s best offensive player and the MVP of the team on that side of the ball. He leads the Patriots in both rushing (161 carries for 734 yards) and receptions (56 catches for 383 yards) putting together a historic season for New England.

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Stevenson is one of just three NFL players to lead his team at this late point in the year in both rushing yards and receptions, joining fellow standout running backs in Chargers playmaker Austin Ekeler and former Giants No. 2 overall pick Saquon Barkley.

Not only is Stevenson one of the rare dual threat running backs in the NFL to pace his offense in both rushing yards and catches,, he’s on pace to become the first Patriots player to do so since Tony Collins had 474 yards rushing and 44 catches in 1987. The only Patriots player to lead the team in both rushing yards and receptions while topping 1,000 yards on the ground was Sam Cunningham (1,015 yards rushing and 42 catches) in 1977.

At his current pace, Stevenson projects to rush for 1,040 yards while hauling in 79 catches to put forth one of the best all-around offensive seasons that New England has ever seen.

In terms of catching the ball, Stevenson has hauled in at least six passes in each of the last six games, including a career-best nine catches on Thanksgiving night against the Vikings. Projecting his 6.5-catch average from the previous six games over the final five games of the year would put the running back just shy of 90 catches on the season. To put that production in perspective, Patriots passing back measuring stick and former Super Bowl hero James White had a career-best 87 catches in 2018.

There’s been plenty to question and complain about in regards to the Patriots’ offense in 2022, but Stevenson is certainly carrying more than his fair share of the load as he puts together one of the more uniquely productive seasons in Patriots history.

2 – While Stevenson’s production in the passing game has been on the uptick, the same can’t be said for New England’s top defensive player at this point in the season. Matthew Judon leads the NFL with a career-high 13 sacks. But he’s been stuck on that number after failing to get to quarterbacks Kirk Cousins and Josh Allen the last two games, the first time Judon has gone consecutive games without a sack this season despite playing a season-high 60 defensive snaps against both Minnesota and Buffalo.

Judon’s late-season production has been a storyline all year, something he’s spoken about openly after his play fell off dramatically down the stretch a year ago. Though he led New England with 12.5 sacks in his first season in Foxborough in 2021, Judon did not record a sack or even a QB hit in the final four games of the year.

Judon has managed his body differently and the team has seemingly managed his playing time a bit with an eye on his production staying at a high level through December and January. Certainly the lack of sacks the last two games could be circumstantial, as he did draw a holding penalty and notch a trio of QB hits. But given what happened last season and that New England is facing more challenging offenses led by MVP-caliber QBs, Judon’s performance over the next five games will be a critical part of the Patriots defense to keep an eye on.

3 – Though you’d certainly never know it based on his press conferences or interviews, Mac Jones is indeed a fiery competitor on the field. That was on full display in a sideline tirade during the loss to the Bills that went viral late last week. Jones explained his explosion in his postgame press conference after the loss to Buffalo, while also noting that as the New England offense continues to fight to improve that he wants “to be coached harder.”

Patriots head coach Bill Belichick was asked about that comment from his second-year franchise QB.

“Well, Mac’s a very competitive guy. Love his attitude, love his passion for the game,” Belichick said. “He works as hard as anybody. As we move forward, try to work to find ways to be more efficient, be more productive in every area. So that’s coaching, playing, interaction with teammates, etc.”

4 – One prone to looking for positives in the Patriots’ play in recent weeks need look no further than rookie Marcus Jones. The third-round pick out of Houston has been a playmaking revelation for New England of late, seeing action in all three phases of the game with positive results. Jones saved the day to beat the Jets with an 84-yard punt return touchdown. This past Thursday night the versatile rookie defensive back made his debut on offense and immediately injected life into the unit with a 48-yard catch-and-run TD against Buffalo, one of the few offensive highlights of the night.

Jones’ versatility is nothing new. He scored touchdowns in all three phases of the game in college, where he was a two-time All-American as a returner who notched nine touchdowns over his career in the kicking game.

According to Belichick, Jones’ has been building toward what has now become an impact playmaking role since he arrived in New England this spring, a growth that was delayed a bit as a returned from shoulder injuries.

“Marcus is a player who’s developed a lot over the course of the season,” Belichick said. “Wasn’t able to do a lot in the spring, he did what he could do, wasn’t able to do everything at the start of training camp, but did what he could do. Got into training camp late, into practicing fulltime, late. So just trying to move him along as a player. I don’t think you take a player like that and throw everything you could possibly throw at him on the first week of the season, returning punts, playing defense, playing outside, playing inside, at times he has to play safety, play offense, return kickoffs, return punts. I just don’t think that’s a good idea, so we didn’t do that. But his role increased from not much to kickoff returns, to punt returns, to some snaps on defense, to a little different role [on offense against Buffalo]. He’s a player who’s gained confidence, gained experience, has been used in different ways. We’ll see what we do going forward, but I think there’s a process of bringing a player along like that and that’s what we tried to do.”

5 – No. 1 NFL wide receivers are No. 1 wide receivers for a reason. They are elite talents with consistent production in the passing game. So, on one level, there’s no shame in New England’s defense failing to hold Minnesota’s Justin Jefferson and then Buffalo’s Stefon Diggs in check over the last two Thursday nights. Jefferson helped his team to victory with nine catches for 139 yards (15.4 avg.) and a touchdown against New England’s secondary. A week later Diggs notched seven catches for 92 yards and a touchdown in the win.

Jonathan Jones, New England’s veteran former slot corner who’s had to bump out to the outside this season after the free agent departure of Pro Bowl cornerback  J.C. Jackson, was a big part of the struggles against Jefferson and Diggs. But it’s also been a display of the fact that New England is simply a bit undermanned at the cornerback position, especially with Jalen Mills out of action against the Bills. Jonathan Jones, rookies Jack and Marcus Jones, former practice squader Myles Bryant, are simply not equipped to deal with elite No. 1 WR opponents. Unfortunately for New England the next month-plus of football fields even greater challenges for the defensive backs in matchups against Arizona’s DeAndre Hopkins, Las Vegas’ Davante Adams, Cincinnati’s Ja’Marr Chase and a second shot at Diggs in the season finale. Life isn’t getting any easier for the Devin McCourty-led defensive backfield.

“I mean just at the end of the day, have got to play better. Just have to make more plays,” Jonathan Jones said of covering elite receivers like Diggs. That’s easier said than done.

6 – While there was some hope that the Patriots’ offense turned a productive corner with the Thanksgiving night 26-point performance against the Vikings that included Mac Jones throwing for nearly 400 yards in the losing effort, that hope has since faded. The offense struggled to do anything with any consistency against the Bills, leaving nothing but frustration in the offensive side of the New England locker room.

“Same story every week. It’s not good enough across the board,” tight end Hunter Henry said, before going on to list the issues that the New England offense needs to clean up at this late point in the process. “Not sustaining drives. Not getting first downs and getting things going. Not possessing the ball, beating ourselves, not blocking the right guy, not communicating well or whatever it is. Penalties, turnovers, early on in the season, It’s not been good.

“We should be playing better. We’re not. We’ve got to look ourselves in the mirror and decide what we want to do. We put some good things together [against the Vikings] and weren’t able to carry it over.”

7 – In the midst of a long week after back-to-back Thursday night games heading toward the Week 15 Monday night meeting with the Cardinals in Arizona, New England continues what is pretty unique late-season schedule. The Patriots have 10 days to prepare for the Cardinals, before staying out West to prepare for the Dec. 18 Sunday night (as of now) matchup with Josh McDaniels’ Raiders in Las Vegas. Unless that game is flexed out of the Sunday night slot, it will be New England’s fourth consecutive prime time game.

Over the last month Belichick’s team has had a short week to prepare for Thanksgiving night in Minnesota, a regular length week though on a Thursday-to-Thursday schedule leading up to the Bills, extra time to get ready for the Cardinals and then the West Coast road trip to the Strip.

It’s definitely one of the more unique schedules New England has ever faced, and so far the results haven’t been great, with an 0-2 start to fall to 6-6 and further into last place in the AFC East.

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