So, it turns out that the New England Patriots running game is pretty good, huh?
The two-headed backfield Hydra in New England ground and pounded their way to a 14-10 win over the Buffalo Bills on Monday night. In a game that determined first place in the AFC East, Damien Harris and Rhamondre Stevenson ran a combined 34 times for 189 yards, with the former scoring the Patriots’ only touchdown. In all, New England ran the ball a total of 46 times against just three passes on a very windy night in Buffalo.
Aside from the attention it brought Bill Belichick from executing an oh-so-Belichickian game plan for the win, there was some well-deserved recognition for New England’s two running backs.
As we’ve usually seen with the Patriots over the years, their head coach hasn’t committed to having a lead back in the run game. Instead, he opted once again for more of a platoon or committee look, with the sophomore Harris and rookie Stevenson sharing running duties. Harris leads the team in rushing attempts, yardage, and offensive snaps, but in recent weeks, the snap counts have begun to even out. The results are speaking for themselves.
The Patriots have a top-10 run game in their defense-adjusted value over average (DVOA), their expected points added per play (EPA), and in rushing success rate. To use less technical terms, this means they’re succeeding often in important situations—converting on third downs, getting big pickups on early downs, etc. As we saw on Monday night, the Patriots have been able to reap the benefits of that success.
Buffalo just could not stop the Patriots’ run game. Heading into Week 13, the Bills had been allowing the sixth-fewest rushing yards per game this year (96.6 yards per game). They were allowing the second-fewest rushing yards per attempt (3.9) behind only New Orleans. We saw flashes of why that was on Monday night—Greg Rousseau and others made some nice tackles for negative yardage throughout—but more often, Harris and Stevenson were grinding through tackles and picking up yards.
The offensive highlight of the game (for either team) was, of course, Harris’ 64-yard touchdown run in the first quarter. Harris catches the ball on the crack toss sweep as he runs outside, but when he sees safety Micah Hyde begin to pursue him to the outside, he cuts back up inside with nothing but grass ahead of him. Harris’ field vision and awareness allowed him to make that play.
It’s no surprise that even with a hamstring injury limiting his carries, he finished with 111 yards on just 10 attempts.
With Harris limited for a solid chunk of the game, we got to see the benefits of a platoon backfield in full. Stevenson’s 3.25 yards per attempt isn’t an incredible stat line at face value, but his ability to keep drives going with big runs like the one above was crucial for the Patriots. His efforts allowed New England to stick with the ground-and-pound game plan all night, leaving less time on the clock for Buffalo and even marching into field goal range for a final Patriots score.
New England has long employed a committee backfield strategy under Belichick and this year’s rushing attack has been no exception. Harris and Stevenson provide the kind of one-two punch in a backfield that is perfect to pair with a developing rookie quarterback like Mac Jones. It takes the pressure off the young guy’s arm and really opens up the ability to use play-action as well. On Monday night, we saw how Belichick was able to use the two backs to effectively execute a practically run-only attack with nearly no issue against a top run defense in the NFL.