For most of Tuesday's joint practice session at Raiders headquarters in Henderson, Nevada, the hosts were in control over the visiting Patriots.
Raiders quarterback Derek Carr and All-Pro receiver Davante Adams connected on several spectacular plays, including a one-handed touchdown catch in the red zone that would've sent social media into a frenzy. On the other side of the ball, New England struggled to gain any ground in the running game, and quarterback Mac Jones was inconsistent.
However, the Patriots showed mental toughness in the high temperatures and ended practice on a positive note during a two-minute drill.
New England's pass rush began to fluster Carr, and if there was an area where the Pats won the day, it was in the trenches defensively, as they also held Las Vegas's running game in check. On the final two-minute drive, the Pats defense had three sacks (Bentley, Uche, Judon), drew a hold (Judon), and safety Adrian Phillips nearly intercepted a Carr pass over the middle.
"We always talk about we want to start fast and finish strong. It was good to see our defense go out there and finish strong. It's the last period of practice. It's the fourth quarter. You've been out there for two-and-a-half hours. It's winning time," Patriots safety Adrian Phillips said after practice.
Then, quarterback Mac Jones and the starting offense went to work, stringing together a touchdown drive that was the most consistent offense we saw on Tuesday morning.
Jones completed passes to tight end Hunter Henry over the middle, a third-down speed out to Jakobi Meyers to move the chains, an on-time deep sideline out to DeVante Parker, and a Jonnu Smith grab set the Pats up on the goal line for a Kendrick Bourne touchdown.
It's hard to ignore how the day started, and let's not sugarcoat things, but the final drives of practice for the starting offense and defense were something to build on for the Patriots.
As training camp comes to an end this week, the biggest unknown is if the Patriots can build off the core plays they've drilled all summer by adding a game-plan element to things in regular season games.
During training camp, the Patriots aren't game-planning for their opponents. The defensive play-callers aren't scheming things up on the offensive play-callers, and vice versa; it's 11 different one-on-one battles where the goal is to execute basic plays and fundamentals.
"It's not really a game-planning thing, so we are trying to work on fundamentals and things like that," Patriots center David Andrews told Patriots.com. "You aren't game-planning the whole week. We are really just trying to come out here and work on fundamentals. I thought we finished the two-minute drill well."
For example, when the Patriots play the Raiders in early December, head coach Bill Belichick and the defensive staff will have a game plan for how the team will cover Adams. When that matchup comes, Jalen Mills and Jonathan Jones won't take Adams on as we saw on Tuesday.
"He's definitely one of those guys that you go into a game, and you know where he's at every single play. You know when he's on the field, off the field, you know when he's getting a water," Phillips told reporters. "He's a guy that you have to know where he's at, and it's great going up against him in practice because you don't need to worry about all those adjustments. You just go out there and play. You see what you are against him. Just lining up best against best."
"Just play. It's fun. We have guys that have played top-notch college football and been to different places. You want to test and see how good you are, so you have to play against the best," Patriots veteran Devin McCourty added.
To the Raiders credit, their overall roster talent was impressive. But based on what we've seen this summer, the Patriots defense has the personnel to at least make things challenging for high-powered offenses.
As we know, Belichick is one of the best defensive masterminds in the history of football, so he'll have a plan at the ready. Plus, a disruptive defensive front and multiple safety package is something they can hang their hat on defensively.
The bigger questions obviously arise on offense, where a collaboration of Belichick, likely play-caller Matt Patricia, and Joe Judge are responsible for filling Josh McDaniels's large shoes.
Currently, it's hard to pinpoint an offensive identity for Mac Jones and company. New England looks the sharpest when they spread the field for Jones in the shotgun and let him go to work, like in the two-minute drill to end Tuesday's practice. However, playing that style of football for a full 60 minutes is difficult, and the under-center zone experiment is still a work in progress.
Outside of one successful Rhamondre Stevenson run early in practice, the Pats running backs were mostly running into a wall of black and silver. Stevenson made a nice read to cut inside of left tackle Trent Brown's block to find daylight, but it was the only time a Pats back was in space.
Practices are mostly one good play to every four or five shaky plays on offense, leading to far too many stalled possessions, and the root of the issue feels like it's because they lack a real identity.
With the regular season fast approaching, the Patriots offense needs to find a style of play that they can consistently execute. Going back a ways, a great example is the 2018 Patriots that found a rhythm by operating on early downs out of 21 personnel with a fullback in the backfield.
Without a true fullback on the roster, it won't be 21 personnel for New England this season. Ultimately, the coaching staff might need to hand the keys to Jones and play the spread game.
The Patriots have one more joint practice with the Raiders, and then it's on to Miami, so now is the time to settle on what they're good at and ride it into the regular season.