Cardinals must neutralize Rhamondre Stevenson, Patriots run game
TEMPE — Over the first four games of the season, the New England Patriots turned to Damien Harris when it came to carrying the load on the ground.
Scoring at least one rushing touchdown in 13 of his 15 games played dating back to Week 5 of 2021, Harris appeared to have a stranglehold on the lead back role.
That was until a Week 5 injury put the running back on the sideline, thrusting second-year pro Rhamondre Stevenson, who was already earning more and more touches, into a starting role.
Since the switch, the Patriots haven’t looked back and for good reason.
“He’s tremendous,” head coach Kliff Kingsbury said Saturday. “Bill said his Year 1 to Year 2 jump compares to Tom Brady and Lawrence Taylor, which are probably the best offensive and defensive player ever in the history of the game. That shows how he feels about Stevenson and he’s not one to heap praise on people.
“He’s played at a very high level this year. the first guy rarely tackles him. Very big, physical, and they use him in the pass game a lot as well. I’ve been really impressed with his development. … He’s really taken off.”
Since taking over the backfield in Week 5, Stevenson has amassed 362 yards and three touchdowns on 93 carries.
It’s been his work in the passing game that has really set him apart from Harris, though, with Stevenson catching 43 of 51 targets for 312 yards and a score.
Keeping Stevenson in check is priority No. 1 for defensive coordinator Vance Joseph and Co. Because outside of him, there’s a lot to be desired when it comes down to this Patriots offense.
Led by quarterback Mac Jones, the Patriots sport the 24th offense in the league with 318.9 yards per game.
It’s been a sophomore slump of sorts for the signal caller, who has dealt with injury and inconsistent play in 2022. Through nine games played, Jones has completed 68.1% of his passes for 1,963 yards but has seven touchdowns to seven interceptions.
And he’ll likely have to navigate Monday night without one of his top pass catchers in Jakobi Meyers. Harris has also been ruled out.
That leaves New England with a combination of DaVante Parker, Hunter Henry, Nelson Agholor, Kendrick Bourne and Stevenson for Arizona to contend with.
Of the five, Parker represents the biggest threat through the air, recording 436 yards and a touchdown. He’s registered nine plays of at least 20 receiving yards and is pacing the team’s pass catchers with 19 yards per reception.
For Arizona to take home a Monday Night Football win, it’ll need to set the tone early up front, which could be easier said than done depending on Zach Allen’s health for the matchup.
The lineman was a surprise addition to the team’s injury report on Saturday with an illness. He’s the most recent Cardinals player to deal with some kind of bug in recent days, with Hopkins missing practice Thursday with an illness before returning back to the fold the following day.
Allen has been a stat stuffer this season, pacing Arizona in tackles for loss with nine and trailing only J.J. Watt (6.5) for the team lead in sacks with 4.5 and Marco Wilson (eight) in passes defensed with seven.
But regardless of who plays and who doesn’t, you can never get too comfortable when facing the masterful Belichick.
Take it from Kingsbury.
“You know he’s going to find ways to take away your best player and find mismatches, then all the different personnel groups that he brings in,” Kingsbury said. “It’s a constant chess match and he’s usually one step ahead of everybody.”
Simply put, the name of the game for the Cardinals this week is to make the Patriots beat them through the air — even with Arizona’s No. 1 cornerback Byron Murphy Jr. already ruled out with a back injury.