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Patriots running backs Damien Harris and Rhamondre Steveson could test the Packers rush defense

The Packers held strong against Leonard Fournette, but they’ll have their work cut out for them again against the Patriots.

NFL: New England Patriots at Pittsburgh Steelers Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

A confluence of events all but ensures the Packers are going to get a heavy dose of old-school football on Sunday. The ground-and-pound game really isn’t a thing in the 2022 NFL, but that kind of approach is pretty much all the Patriots have going for them this year, and the Packers will have to be ready if they’re going to take advantage of the clear talent disparity between the two teams.

My colleague Rcon digs into the Patriots’ likely offensive approach here, but I wanted to go a bit deeper on the two guys likely to do the most damage for the Patriots on the ground: Damien Harris and Rhamondre Stevenson.

Harris hasn’t put up eye-popping numbers since the Patriots took him with the 87th pick of the 2019 NFL Draft, but he’s been an efficient runner both by conventional and advanced numbers. His career rushing average of 4.7 yards per attempt is more than good enough, and he was a top 10 runner in both DVOA and DYAR from Football Outsiders in 2021. So far in 2022, he’s matched his analytically sound production, again ranking in the top 10 in both metrics.

Harris is an above-average athlete. He won’t ever blow anybody away in a footrace, but his overall athletic profile is solid.

That profile is especially good for the kind of running where Harris excels: hammering away up the middle. In 2021, 90 of his 202 carries went over the center or right guard, and he’s continued that trend in 2022. 23 of his 35 carries have come up the middle so far.

Rhamondre Stevenson offers a very similar skillset, but in a bigger package. A fourth-round pick in 2021, Stevenson is a bit taller and a little more than 20 pounds heavier than Harris. He’s a bit slower than Harris, and isn’t quite as explosive, but he averaged 4.6 per carry last year and is earning 5 yards per carry so far this season.

Stevenson attacks the outside a bit more than Harris. He’s run off tackle more often than his counterpart this year, a continuation of his usage from last year. 51 of his 140 carries in 2021 went wide, according to Pro Football Focus.

Stevenson brings some muscle, too. He averaged 3.15 yards after contact per carry last season, and he’s bumped that up to 4.17 this season. For comparison, AJ Dillon averaged 3.14 yards after contact in 2021 and has only managed just 2.63 yards after contact in 2022.

How do the Packers’ stop the Patriots’ running back duo? Tactically, discipline on the edge will be crucial. With the Patriots likely limited in the passing game, the Packers can probably count on keeping De’Vondre Campbell and Quay Walker on the field together quite a bit, which should more or less keep things under control up the middle. But setting a hard edge will be important. That hasn’t been a problem for Preston Smith this year (or ever), but Rashan Gary’s tendency to peek inside could yield big gains against the Patriots.

But beyond tactics, there might be a simple way to take Harris and Stevenson away: get far enough ahead that there’s no way the Patriots can run themselves back into the game. Given the talent gap, it could be tempting for the Packers to play this one simple and count on their stronger roster to gradually wear the Patriots down. But letting New England play it close would be a mistake. The Packers can help their defense limit Harris and Stevenson by staying aggressive on offense and putting up enough points that the Patriots have to rely on Brian Hoyer rather than their capable offensive line and strong runners.