The internal battle all summer long for the Patriots has been what exactly are we seeing from head coach Bill Belichick's starting defense?
Whether it's their own offense or two joint practices against the Carolina Panthers, New England's defense is controlling play and outright dominant in some instances in training camp. However, including Friday night's first dress rehearsal against Carolina's backup, we still haven't seen the Pats defense go toe-to-toe with an elite offense firing at all cylinders.
Until then, the questions will persist, is the Patriots defense beating up on Panthers second-stringers, or are they building off a top-ten unit a year ago to create something special?
After holding Carolina's backups to just ten points and 192 yards of offense, there were a few elements to New England's style of play that are likely to carry over into the regular season.
One of the new wrinkles that the Patriots used sparingly but could become more prevalent as the season progresses involves a revamped linebacker room and hopefully an influx of speed.
During training camp practices, we've seen the coaching staff use second-year Patriot linebacker Raekwon McMillan in the middle of the defense while veteran Ja'Whaun Bentley moves to the edge opposite Pro Bowler Matt Judon. With a safety, usually Kyle Dugger, playing in the box, the Pats form a more dynamic 3-4 defense.
Although Bentley played just two snaps on the line of scrimmage, the alignment resulted in two positive plays for the defense.
Panthers running back D'Onta Foreman gained two yards on a 2-and-5 play in the second quarter. Bentley lines up as the strong side edge defender and presses the tight end into the backfield to set a firm edge to the defense. Foreman is forced to cut inside Bentley, where a host of Patriots are plugging the gaps along the line of scrimmage.
Later in the same drive, the Patriots went to the same front on third down with Bentley manning the strong-side edge position.
This time, Bentley and McMillan are reading the release by the running back. If the running back releases into the flat, he becomes Bentley's responsibility. If the back comes through the center of the line, McMillan takes him in coverage, which allows the Pats to stay leveraged on the running back's route. Furthermore, Bentley lining up over the tight end frees Judon up for a two-on-two T/E stunt with Deatrich Wise. With Judon and Wise single blocked, they ran an effective stunt against Panthers starting left tackle Ikem Ekwonu and top left guard Brady Christensen for a Wise sack to force a punt.
There are several advantages to the Patriots aligning with Bentley as an edge rusher versus an off-ball linebacker. For starters, it gets more athletic coverage players such as McMillan and Mack Wilson on the second level of the defense. Bentley, who has good playing strength, is now playing more in the trenches or less stressful flat coverages rather than in the middle of the field. In all likelihood, that keeps the nearly 260-pound linebacker out of foot races against running backs and crossing routes, allowing McMillan and Wilson to handle playing in space.
As we saw on Deatrich Wise's sack on Friday night, the second clear advantage is that Bentley's playing stress to align over the tight end allows Judon and New England's other top pass-rushers to get as many one-on-one opportunities as possible to rush the quarterback.
Seeing that Bentley played 14 of his 16 snaps at inside linebacker against the Panthers, it remains to be seen how often the Patriots will put him on the line of scrimmage this season.
But as linebackers coach Jerod Mayo said following the 2021 season, the goal for the defense is to get faster and have more playmakers on the field. With that objective in mind, using the powerful Bentley as an edge-setter allows them to be more dynamic at the second level.
Here are the rest of our film notes After Further Review of the Patriots win over the Panthers:
1. Patriots Starting Offense's Problems Similar to Training Camp Practices
The idea here isn't to point any fingers at one area of the offense, as there were a handful of things that could've been better on Friday night. However, the theme for Mac Jones and company this summer is that when Mac is kept clean in the pocket, the passing offense makes plays.
That was on full display when Jones dropped a deep-ball dime to Nelson Agholor for a 45-yard completion on his first big-time throw of the preseason. The Panthers had man coverage across the board against the Pats receivers. When tight end Jonnu Smith's crossing route held the deep safety inside, Mac showed off his improved deep ball by giving Agholor, who had a step, a chance against single coverage to make a play.
The plays are there to be made downfield. The problems arise when Jones needs to move past his first read and reset in the pocket to the next receivers in the progression.
The third-down sack that ended New England's opening drive is a great example. With the Panthers dropping off into a cover-two zone, Jones wisely passes up the three receivers to his right and tries to work to the backside. In cover two, the boundary corner is squatting on Nelson Agholor's out route from the right slot. If Jones throws to Agholor, that outside corner will jump the route.
Instead, the coverage beater is on the single receiver side, where Jonnu Smith is open in the cover-two hole at the bottom of the screen. Unfortunately, when Mac resets to find Smith, the pass rush gets home, and he's brought down for a sack.
Due to the constant shuffling and limits on padded practices, the offensive line is often the last offensive unit to gel, so it's not surprising that things are still a work in progress up front.
The good news for the Patriots is that if the blocking improves, the quarterback and skill players have shown they can make plays.
2. Eyes on the Left Side: Yodny Cajuste (LT) and Cole Strange (LG) See Extended Action
With starting left tackle Trent Brown taking the night off, third-year pro Yodny Cajuste got the nod at left tackle next to first-round pick Cole Strange at left guard. The duo combined to allow just two quarterback pressures, one QB hit (Strange) and one hurry (Cajuste), while also creating a few holes in the running game.
Cajuste looked strong on his combination blocks in the running game, caving in the Panthers defensive ends on a few occasions working in tandem with Strange. The 2019 third-round pick also has zero issues protecting his edge when pass-rushers try to turn the corner on him. The one area that presented a few issues for Cajuste was a strong inside move by the defender. Cajuste will need to develop a stronger inside hand and redirect power to close off the inside rush lanes.
As for Strange, his zone blocks are mostly as advertised, coming from a zone-heavy running scheme in college. The rookie also settled into pass protection and was clean on 17 true pass sets, which take play-action and screens out of the equation. Strange plays with an aggressive demeanor, which is a good thing, but he can sometimes get overextending and off-balance.
For both Cajuste and Strange, these are not physical limitations and should be correctable. Strange is already penciled in as the starting left guard, and Cajuste has earned a roster spot.
3. Rookie QB Bailey Zappe is Grasping the Big-Picture in the Passing Game
Along with displaying physical tools to hold an NFL roster spot, the next step for a young quarterback is understanding full-field concepts and the overall goal of each route.
On a few occasions, fourth-round pick Bailey Zappe demonstrated that he's starting to grasp things well. Above, the Pats run two in-breaking routes to Zappe's left with a seam clearing out the middle. Zappe sees the two-high safety shell and knows that if he moves the underneath linebacker, he'll have a passing window to Lil'Jordan Humphrey on the dig route. Zappe stares down the running back to influence Panthers linebacker Julian Stanford (no. 50) towards the check-down, opening the void to complete the pass to Humphrey. That is NFL quarterbacking from the rookie.
4. What to Make of WR Lil'Jordan Humphrey's Breakout Preseason?
Speaking of Humphrey, the 6-foot-3 wideout will likely be on an NFL roster this season but will it be in New England? The shoulder injury to second-round pick Tyquan Thornton opens a path to the 53-man roster for Humphrey, who is doing everything possible to make the team. Humphrey is successfully working the middle of the field on horizontal breaks (digs) or vertical routes (seams/posts), is showing up in the running game as a blocker, and then made the special teams play of the night versus the Panthers.
Belichick called Humphrey a "big receiver, tight end-ish type of guy," and he could earn a roster spot as a pseudo-third tight end. As shown above, Humphrey's (no. 83) blocking ability flashed twice in New England's crack toss scheme. The receptions are nice, but the blocking and plays in the kicking game will make Humphrey a tough cut. After Thornton's injury, my money is on Humphrey sticking around.
5. Patriots Teasing an RPO Package With Mac Jones This Season
After running two successful run-pass options with Jones and Zappe on Friday night, an Alabama-style RPO package could be coming to Foxboro this season. We'll see how expansive the RPO plays are, but they are at least in the playbook.
6. What is LB Mack Wilson's Role in the Patriots Defense?
The Pats going with Jahlani Tavai to start the game over Raekwon McMillan and Mack Wilson was very interesting. McMillan eventually saw time with other starters, but Wilson didn't see the field until it was time for the 1B's and two's on Friday night.
Watching Wilson make plays like these makes it hard to envision a scenario where he isn't a contributor on passing downs. Wilson is playing as a low rat/robber in man coverage, helps Marcus Jones close off the middle, and then rallies to the ball to aid Terrance Mitchell in stopping the receiver short of the line to gain on third down. Those are the types of plays this defense needs from their linebackers this season.
7. Battle Between Young and Old on the Patriots Defensive Line
Patriots rookies Sam Roberts (sixth-round) and LaBryan Ray (undrafted) have a lot of potential. Roberts is a gamer, while Ray is a practice star, but both first-year players are making a push for the 53. However, Carl Davis (NT) and Henry Anderson (DE) are steady veterans who consistently two-gap with sound technique. The vets likely project as players who can contribute in New England's base defense, but is the depth for this year more important than developing two explosive youngsters in Roberts and Ray? That's going to be a tough decision for Belichick.
8. Patriots Rookie CB Jack Jones Making Progress in Man Coverage
We've spoken at length about most of New England's rookies at this point, but Jones is having a slower build-up than others from the 2022 draft class. Although it came late in the game, Jones's coverage on Panthers wide receiver Derek Wright was an excellent positional play. With the safety help in the middle of the field, Jones played his leverage beautifully to run the route for Wright and nearly intercept the pass. The fourth-round pick also smothered a crossing route off a play-action fake in the fourth quarter on Friday night. Jones is starting to show up on tape.