After a dozen Training Camp practices where teammates went against one another, the Patriots will host the Carolina Panthers for consecutive days of joint practices ahead of Friday night's second preseason game.
The Patriots and Panthers will practice on Tuesday and Wednesday in sessions open to the public, and those practices figure to bring out an intensity that we haven't seen yet in camp.
Speaking to reporters last week, head coach Bill Belichick referred to upcoming joint practices with Carolina and next week against the Las Vegas Raiders as the "competitive" practices of the summer. In preparation for a physical two days, the Pats were in shorts and shells on Monday morning, signaling the team will put a lot into the next two days.
Although Monday's practice was lighter in terms of contact, the Patriots are dialing up the creativity, especially on offense. Following weeks of basic installation, we are beginning to see multiple personnel groupings, more motion and window dressing, and plays that involve post-snap decisions by the quarterback, such as run-pass options.
The timing is perfect for the Patriots to really get into the type of offense they'll feature when the games start to count since the Panthers bring a formidable test defensively to Gillette Stadium.
Despite a lengthy injury to first-round pick Jaycee Horn, Carolina's defense finished 15th in Defense-Adjusted Value Over Average (DVOA) and seventh in pressure rate on opposing quarterbacks last season. In their Week 9 matchup a year ago, the Panthers defense held Mac Jones and the Patriots to 24 points and just 273 yards of total offense.
As the Patriots offensive line continues to work through growing pains with new players in different spots and a tweaked system, the Panthers defensive front is as good an examination as New England will face in the 2022 season.
During the first 12 Training Camp practices, the Patriots starting offense had issues at times with unblocked or free runners at the quarterback with the multiple pressure looks Bill Belichick's defense throws at them in any given practice session.
"A lot of it's just figuring out the scheme and making sure that there are no free guys. That's the biggest thing for me: as long as there's no one free, I should be able to make the throws," quarterback Mac Jones told Patriots.com last week.
"It's just getting the communication down. It's different from what we've done in the past, so just figuring that out and trying to watch it together. It is a little frustrating sometimes, but our offensive line – the actual players and coaches – are trying the best they can."
Along with having talented pass-rushers, Panthers defensive coordinator Phil Snow is a notorious zone-blitzer, ranking third in blitz percentage in 2021. Snow likes to create protection issues with "mugged" linebackers in the A-Gaps and involving the backend in the blitz package while players on the line of scrimmage drop into coverage. In some ways, it's similar to what the Patriots second and third-stringers faced last Thursday night against Giants defensive coordinator Don "Wink" Martindale.
The Panthers also feature a productive four-man pass rush. But before we get into the individual matchups for the Patriots this week, Carolina's defensive system will test New England's work-in-progress communication along the offensive line.
"It's not acceptable. As a quarterback, I can't imagine that feeling," center David Andrews said of the unblocked rushers at New England's quarterbacks. "We have to be better. We all have to be better. We all have to be tied in whether it's the [running] backs, him [Mac Jones], us [the offensive line]. All 11 have to be tied in on offense for a successful play."
If the Patriots offensive line can keep the quarterbacks clean and the operation runs on time against Carolina's blitz-happy defense, it's a massive step forward for a group still figuring things out.
Here are five matchups to watch when the Patriots host the Panthers for joint practices this week:
1. Patriots Offensive Line vs. Panthers Defensive Front
Sticking with the same theme as above, there are two individual matchups that we'll have a close eye on in the trenches with the Pats O-Line and Panthers defensive front.
First, New England's right tackle situation has daily developments due to the uncertain status of expected starter Isaiah Wynn and a see-sawing battle to back up Wynn. With Wynn sitting out recent practices, Justin Herron and 2019 third-round pick Yodny Cajuste had opportunities with the top unit over the last week. Herron, who was limited on Monday, might've opened the door for Cajuste with his struggles, including two false start penalties in the preseason opener against the Giants. Cajuste has some high-upside moments where he flashes excellent footwork and athleticism but is still too inconsistent. Depending on who is healthy enough to practice, a big test is coming in Carolina's Brian Burns. Burns's speed and bend to turn a tight corner are elite traits. If Cajuste holds up against Burns, he could steal the job from Wynn and Herron.
Along with the offensive tackle situation, Panthers defensive tackle Derrick Brown presents an intriguing battle for first-round pick Cole Strange. Strange had a successful preseason debut where his run-blocking and ability to sniff out stunt schemes were impressive. To build on that, we'll watch how Strange handles one of the most powerful DTs in the game in Brown. The Auburn product has a little Vince Wilfork to his game as an immovable object against the run who can collapse the pocket in passing situations. Strange had issues at times this summer with power rushers, so evaluating him against Brown will give us a good look at his progression.
2. Patriots Wide Receivers vs. Panthers Long, Athletic Cornerbacks
Speaking to reporters before Monday's practice, Patriots wide receivers coach Ross Douglas pointed out the length and athleticism New England will face this week against Carolina's secondary. With Horn practicing after last season's foot injury, the 6-foot-1 South Carolina product is joined by CJ Henderson (6-1) and Donte Jackson (5-11) to form a starting trio that brings more length to the table than what the Pats receivers go up against with their own defense or the Giants. Douglas also pointed out safety Jeremy Chinn as a coverage player, who is 6-foot-3.
The Panthers major in zone and blitz-zone coverages, but Patriots second-round pick Tyquan Thornton will still see his fair share of physical coverage and long athletes. Thornton's playing strength and ability to fight through contact stood out in his first taste of NFL action. But this group of corners will challenge him even more in that regard. Along with Thornton, it'll be interesting to see how roster hopefuls such as Kristian Wilkerson, Tre Nixon, and Lil'Jordan Humphrey separate. Overall, this is a good Panthers pass defense, so any consistency moving the ball through the air is a plus for the Patriots.
3. How Does the Patriots Secondary Matchup Against D.J. Moore and Company?
Although there isn't any game-planning for joint practices, we will get our first glimpse at how the Patriots will handle two legitimate outside threats in Panthers wide receivers D.J. Moore and Robbie Anderson. The latter was rumored to be a trade target for the Patriots this past offseason before they acquired DeVante Parker.
Recently, the Patriots starting defense tried a different look than we saw earlier in camp. With veteran Jalen Mills consistently on one side, Jonathan Jones has kicked outside while third-round pick Marcus Jones has manned the slot. The elder Jones gets reps at outside corner every summer as the Patriots prepare for every scenario. But the emergence of the third-round rookie could lead to Belichick putting his top three cover guys on the field regardless of size or ideal alignment by moving Jon Jones outside. As it relates to the Panthers, in past seasons without a true number one corner, we've seen Belichick bracket or double the opponent's top receiver while trusting his de facto top corner to take the opponent's number two on an island. Will the Pats use two defenders to cover Moore or Anderson? Or trust their guys to play man coverage against Carolina's top pass-catching duo? Hopefully, we'll get some hints on how they'll handle things during the regular season.
4. Patriots Coverage Linebackers vs. Panthers RB Christian McCaffrey
In his routine pre-game interview on 98.5 the Sports Hub last Thursday night, Patriots head coach Bill Belichick seemed pleased with the team's improved athleticism at linebacker. Most notably, Belichick mentioned the "coverage flexibility" that trade acquisition Mack Wilson and 2021 fifth-round selection Cameron McGrone could give the Pats defense this season.
The Panthers manage the workload for star running back Christian McCaffrey, but McCaffrey is arguably the most explosive pass-catching back in the league. It's a significant challenge for any pure linebacker to cover the 2019 All-Pro. Belichick might deploy one of his cover safeties on McCaffrey if this was a game situation. Still, it'll be good to get a look at Wilson, McGrone, and Raekwon McMillan in space against McCaffrey. Plus, we could see New England experiment at the second level to get a safety on McCaffrey in certain situations. Adrian Phillips and Kyle Dugger continue to be a massive part of the Pats defense, while free-agent addition Jabrill Peppers is working more with the top unit as of late (he had an interception during team drills on Monday). The Patriots have excellent depth at safety, especially box or nickel safety in the Patrick Chung role, so we'll take notes on how they deploy that group against Carolina this week.
5. Patriots Young Edge Rushers vs. Panthers OTs Ikem Ekwonu and Taylor Moton
As an offensive line nerd, seeing the sixth overall pick from last year's draft up close will be fun. Ekwonu enters the league as arguably one of the top athletes along the offensive line. At 280-plus pounds, the NC State star anchored his high school track team and is also a former wrestler. His wrestling background shows up with his hand fighting and ability to create power through his upper body to plant defenders into the dirt. Ekwonu is a special talent.
As the Panthers rebuild their offensive line, the tackle on the other side, Moton, is no slouch either. The Patriots are hoping that one of their young edge rushers emerges to line up opposite Pro Bowler Matt Judon and take the place of departed vet Kyle Van Noy. At the moment, 2020 third-round pick Anfernee Jennings is the leader in the clubhouse. Jennings posted solid tape against the run and as a pass-rusher in the preseason opener, while he has also stood out in team periods during practice. Fellow third-year EDGE Josh Uche is still in the mix as a situational pass-rusher, but we are waiting to see the light turn on for 2021 third-rounder Ronnie Perkins. With the teaching period giving way to competitive practices, now is the time to work out the depth chart behind Judon.