Patriots rookie running back Rhamondre Stevenson hits stride at perfect time

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- It was right around the time New England Patriots rookie running back Rhamondre Stevenson was turning around his season, early November, and longtime captain David Andrews was stopped briefly in his tracks.

The affable center smiled and chuckled to himself. He was collecting his thoughts about Stevenson. Then he smiled and chuckled to himself again.

"You'll figure it out why I'm laughing after the season," Andrews said. "He's been great to have."

If things go the way his Patriots teammates hope, the revelation about Stevenson that had Andrews chuckling won't come until mid-February -- after the Super Bowl.

The Patriots have already clinched a playoff berth as they prepare for Sunday's regular-season finale against the Miami Dolphins at Hard Rock Stadium (4:25 p.m. ET, CBS), and one theme has quickly become clear: They are at their best when Stevenson's hard-charging running is a central part of their plan.

The 6-foot, 226-pound fourth-round pick from Oklahoma pairs with Damien Harris to form a potent one-two punch. When Harris was rested in the second half of Sunday's 50-10 win over the Jacksonville Jaguars, Stevenson took over and finished with a season-high 107 yards on 19 carries, with two touchdowns.

It was the second game with 100-plus yards and two scores for the rookie, who enters Week 18 with 129 carries for 572 rushing yards (4.4 per carry) and five touchdowns.

"Obviously 'Mondre is a great player, but he's an even better person," Harris said.

Stevenson had been inactive (on the reserve/COVID-19 list) the previous game -- a 33-21 loss in Week 16 against the Buffalo Bills.

"Everyone's going through it right now with COVID in the NFL. It was just one of those instances I tested positive and I had to wait my few days to come back. I'm here now," he said. "It means the world. Not being out with my team and watching on the TV is probably the worst thing to do. There's nothing like being on the field with them."

Stevenson had been on the field in Week 15, when Harris was out because of a hamstring injury. But the Patriots fell behind early against the Indianapolis Colts, which made it harder to lean on him. He finished with 10 carries for 36 yards.

Andrews called Stevenson a "tough, fast, physical kid" who "when he gets in space can do a lot of things well." The two seem to have a fun connection, with Andrews' sideline call of "'Mondre! 'Mondre! 'Mondre!" -- from a game in late October when Andrews was wearing a microphone for NFL Films -- becoming a rallying point of sorts.

Coach Bill Belichick has been impressed with Stevenson's growth over the course of the season.

"'Mondre has improved a lot. He only had one year at Oklahoma. He picked up a lot there, but he's just continued to develop in all areas -- running, pass protection, blitz pickup, just overall patience in the running game, decision-making and ball security," he said.

"He's been asked to do a lot of things and he's put in the extra time and really embraced the coaching and the detail he's gotten, and tried to execute it. And he has. I think he's earned everyone's respect for his work ethic and his willingness to help the team in any way he can."

Stevenson's early-season struggles have been well documented -- how he played five snaps in the season-opener against Miami, losing a fumble and struggling with a blitz pickup that led to him being benched for three games.

He returned for two games before being surprisingly inactive for a late October game against the New York Jets.

He was rolling in seven straight games before COVID-19 knocked him out.

"For how big he is, he's smooth," tight end Hunter Henry said of Stevenson. "He can get in and out of his cuts. He has great vision for a young back. He's got a bright future."