FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — The big-picture agenda for the New England Patriots over the final three games of the regular season is clear-cut: Win games, play better football and enter the playoffs on a high note similar to last season.
Within that comes a question of note: How much can wide receiver N’Keal Harry, the first-round draft choice from Arizona State, help contribute to those goals?
The Patriots’ offense needs a spark, as the team hasn’t hit the 30-point mark in six consecutive games. If the Patriots (10-3) are sub-30 again Sunday against the Cincinnati Bengals at Paul Brown Stadium (1 p.m. ET, CBS), it will match the longest streak in the coach Bill Belichick/quarterback Tom Brady era (2005, 2002).
Harry played two snaps in the team’s loss to the Kansas City Chiefs on Sunday, but his second snap might have sparked the possibility for bigger things ahead. The play, a 15-yard touchdown run that was incorrectly ruled a 12-yard run by the officiating crew, was described by Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels as a “great individual effort.”
Harry needed that play, because his effort on a slant route the week before against the Houston Texans — when cornerback Bradley Roby undercut him to intercept a Brady pass that changed the momentum of the game — was not as well-received.
So it stood out this week when McDaniels said: “I need to do a better job of trying to find a way to get him the ball and get him involved, so that he can do some of those things and do more of them.”
That qualifies as one of the storylines to watch closely in the Patriots’ final three-game stretch — at Cincinnati, and then back-to-back home games against the Bills and Dolphins.
Just as the Patriots used the final two games of the 2018 season (which on the surface looked like ho-hum matchups entering the playoffs) to transition into more of a power-running team, this final stretch could possibly be a time to experiment with how they can better tap some of Harry’s assets, the same things that drew them to him with the No. 32 pick.
The 6-foot-4, 225-pound Harry made a living at Arizona State fighting for the ball in contested-catch situations. His relentless run blocking also fits well in New England.
To expect a full load of snaps for Harry isn’t realistic, but more than two seems like a necessity. After missing most of the preseason and then landing on injured reserve at the start of the regular season, he has been active for four regular-season games. So, in essence, his preseason just ended.
“He’s here early, he’s here late, and he’s trying to close the ground on being able to go out there and understand who he’s playing against and what he needs to do to be successful,” McDaniels said. “There’s no shortcut to all that, we know that. He’s got a great attitude. He has a skill set that can certainly help us produce and win.”
Harry’s big play against the Chiefs further solidifies that.
“At the end of the day, I was always taught to control what I can control, and I felt like I did that. I felt like my effort was good, and that’s all I can give,” he said.
Because the Patriots are a game-plan specific offense, their approach varies significantly on a weekly basis, which leads to a fluctuation in playing time for players integrating into the mix like Harry.
In his debut against the Eagles on Nov. 17, Harry played 32 snaps. It wouldn’t have been that high had fellow receiver Phillip Dorsett not left the game with a concussion at halftime, and he finished with three catches for 18 yards. The expectation going in, according to CBS sideline reporter Tracy Wolfson, was about 15 snaps for Harry.
Harry then played 55 in Dorsett’s absence the following week against the Cowboys, as the offense struggled in rain-soaked, windy conditions. The results (1 catch, 10 yards, TD) were modest as Harry was thrown into the fire.
Then came 22 snaps against the Texans, although the playing time dipped significantly after the interception. That’s why what Harry did last week against the Chiefs, in his second of just two snaps, was so important.
“He’s a big physical guy that can make plays with the ball in his hands, and I think that play did a lot for his confidence,” Dorsett said.
“He can be really good. He just has to hone in and learn how to be a pro. It’s something every rookie has to learn. It’s tough. This isn’t college any more. It’s an every-day grind. This is your job now. You’re not going to school any more, this is what you do for a living. Once he learns that, and he’s definitely learning it, the sky is the limit.”