CINCINNATI — There was no visible hesitation before snaps. There was no uncertainty after snaps. And there were snaps. Lots of 'em.
N'Keal Harry saw 40 plays in his team's 34-13 win over the Bengals on Sunday, dwarfing the two snaps he saw one week prior in a loss to the Chiefs. He recorded two catches for 15 yards and a touchdown to go along with two carries for 22 yards. But looking as comfortable as he did, the numbers accompanying his name in the box score belied his performance.
"Kind of getting the groove a little bit," Harry said after. "Starting to get more confident out there game by game, play by play."
In previous games, there were moments when Harry looked like a rookie. He hesitated breaking huddles and doubled back to Tom Brady for specific instructions. He hesitated at the line of scrimmage against the Chiefs last week when he was put in motion. On scramble-drill plays in Philadelphia last month, he looked unsure of where he was supposed to be.
On Sunday he played fast. And he did so as the Patriots used him in a variety of alignments. Before seeing the Bengals, over 80 percent of Harry's snaps came aligned out wide. About the same number of plays came with Harry aligned to the left of Patriots formations. He'd never taken a hand-off. He'd been put in motion exactly once.
On Sunday, he lined up in the slot. He lined up out wide. He lined up on the line of scrimmage and off. He took two end-around missile-motion handoffs. He motioned to sell fakes on handoffs up the middle. He ran go-routes outside the numbers and corner routes from inside. His touchdown reception came on a scramble-drill play where he had to understand the timing of the play was off, turn around, and sprint along the back end line to make himself available.
It looked like a trust-builder.
"On those type of plays, you just have to find a way to get open," Harry said. "Whatever it takes. Glad I could do that. Thank God I could do that."
"He's fighting," Brady said. "He's been working hard for weeks to learn. He's a very hard-working guy. It's fun to see him make those plays."
Harry's best play might've actually been one that didn't count. It came during a third-and-three situation, when he cruised up the sideline and made a leaping grab up and over a defender, laying out for a 33-yard gain. It was erased after a false start penalty called on Julian Edelman.
Maybe it was that play that gave him a shot of confidence. Or maybe it was his near-touchdown last week. Or maybe it was simply the regular day-to-day work he put in back in Foxboro leading up to the game — with coaches Joe Judge and Troy Brown, out at practice, maybe some work in the "virtual room" — that allowed him to hit another gear in his fifth game as a pro.
"I take the same approach every day," Harry said. "I really take pride in being a hard worker and being a workhorse. I just take that approach and just seize the day every day I can."
Harry's teammates saw a different player on the field Sunday, too. Edelman said Harry is "coming around, making some plays, playing faster."
"Knowing what to do," Edelman explained, is what improves game speed. "Being confident with going into a test. Knowing all the little things so you can let your athleticism come in and play. I would say that's playing fast."
At this point, the Patriots can ill afford to get less from their rookie. He's no longer a luxury item fresh off the injured reserve list that had him miss the first half of his first season.
Edelman (41 snaps) is hurt, and he looked it in Cincinnati, catching just two passes for nine yards. Mohamed Sanu (56 snaps, more than any Patriots receiver) simply hasn't produced. He's dealt with an ankle injury, but playing a full-time workload against the Bengals yielded only two catches for 13 yards on eight targets. With two of his veteran targets having down days, Brady finished with 128 yards and two touchdowns on 15-of-29 passing.
The Patriots needed Harry. Harry needed a game to get on track after he was all but benched a week ago. This felt like the one.
"It was good just getting out there, just starting to get my groove back out there," Harry said. "Felt good."