In resurgent season, Patriots’ Ezekiel Elliott has shown he’s ‘still the old-time Zeke’

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Early in training camp, Bill Belichick realized the New England Patriots had a problem at running back. Rhamondre Stevenson was great, sure, but the depth behind him was an issue.

Pierre Strong and Kevin Harris weren’t developing as hoped. A brief stint with James Robinson didn’t go as planned. Ty Montgomery was often injured and more of a receiving threat.

So Belichick decided the Pats needed more help behind Stevenson. Just three weeks before the season started, he signed Ezekiel Elliott to a one-year deal worth $3 million. Three months later, that’s been one of Belichick’s best moves of the year.

Not much has gone as planned for the Patriots in 2023. The draft class has been underwhelming, stunted by injuries and a lack of opportunity. The free-agent fixes on the offensive line have not worked out. The offense as a whole, where many expected a vast improvement with the addition of Bill O’Brien, has been hugely disappointing.

But Elliott has been vital. The veteran back stepped in for Stevenson on Thursday and was the main reason the offense moved the ball effectively in a 21-18 win over the Pittsburgh Steelers. Elliott accounted for 140 of the Patriots’ 303 total yards.

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With Stevenson potentially out for the rest of the season, Elliott will remain the team’s top running back. And if he plays the final four games like he did in Pittsburgh, Elliott could set himself up for another contract with the Patriots, potentially sticking around next season and beyond, too.

“I definitely love playing with Rhamondre,” Elliott said. “We’ve gotten super close since we’ve been here. It sucks that he wasn’t out there with us. But it definitely feels good for me to get out there, get the touches, touch the ball a lot, get in a rhythm and be a big part of this win.”

Zappe ➡️ Zeke! @baileyzappe04 | @EzekielElliott

📺: #NEvsPIT on @NFLonPrime pic.twitter.com/MB9eFOQWwj

— New England Patriots (@Patriots) December 8, 2023

It’s bleak to think about what the Patriots offense would look like at this stage of the season without Elliott. The passing game has improved slightly since quarterback Mac Jones was benched for Bailey Zappe. But even in the best game of Zappe’s career, the unit still slumped in the second half against the Steelers, managing only 44 passing yards in the final 30 minutes. And 72 of Zappe’s 240 passing yards came on throws to Elliott. Without him, the Pats would likely have Montgomery or Harris as their feature back right now.

He was critical, too, in icing the team’s win Thursday night. The 28-year-old Elliott touched the ball on 15 of the Patriots’ 22 second-half plays.

“To be able to do what Zeke did as far as the run game and pass game, it just shows that he’s still the old-time Zeke and he still has a lot left in the tank,” Zappe said.

The Patriots had more success passing the ball downfield against the Steelers than in other games. On his second throw, Zappe hit JuJu Smith-Schuster for a 37-yard gain. He also connected with Hunter Henry on a 24-yard touchdown. Both passes were impressive.

But it’s also true the New England offense will still largely be based on the running game and short passes. That will especially be the case against the Kansas City Chiefs on Sunday if the Patriots want to control the clock and keep the ball out of Patrick Mahomes’ hands. That means another busy day for Elliott.

In years past, the veteran running back has slowed down as the seasons near their end. Last season with the Dallas Cowboys, his yards per carry dipped to 2.7 in the final four games after running for 4.2 yards per carry over the first 11 games. But after occupying the No. 2 role behind Stevenson for most of this season, Elliott feels he’s ready to end this Patriots season with a bang.

“This is the best I’ve felt this late in the season,” he said.

Belichick isn’t one to frequently hand out praise. But he does typically compile a video of some of the team’s best hustle plays and hard work to show players as a reward. None of Elliott’s 29 touches from Thursday are likely to end up on that reel.

But Elliott made a game-saving play without the ball in his hands. When Zappe threw an interception late in the third quarter, it seemed destined to head back to the end zone for a pick six. Instead, Elliott ran across half the field to make a touchdown-saving tackle. The Patriots defense, which has been stout over the last month, then forced a turnover on downs that kept the Steelers from scoring even though they started the drive on the New England 16-yard line after the interception. In a 3-point win, that was a massive turn of events.

Tipped and picked! @Steelers take over in their own territory#NEvsPIT on Prime Video
Also available on #NFLPlus https://t.co/0GJemAElFj pic.twitter.com/ZOvaNHrZfm

— NFL (@NFL) December 8, 2023

“I thought Zeke ran hard and he made a big play on the interception, kept them out of the end zone, and then we ended up getting a defensive stop on that,” Belichick said. “That was a huge play.”

In a season with a lot of lows, a backup running back playing well isn’t exactly headline news. But the Patriots needed something to feel good about, and Elliott helped deliver a win that has everyone at 1 Patriot Place feeling a bit better.

(Photo: Joe Sargent / Getty Images)


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