The Patriots are back in the winner's circle, albeit in a preseason matchup with the Carolina Panthers at Gillette Stadium on Friday night.
After starters on both sides of the ball sat out the preseason opener against the Giants, Patriots fans got their first glimpse of quarterback Mac Jones and New England's first-team offense along with the Pats starting defense in a 20-10 victory over the Panthers.
Although it's hard to ignore consecutive three-and-out's to start things off, Jones quelled any anxieties with one 45-yard completion to wide receiver Nelson Agholor down the left sideline. The throw was a dime. However, the streakiness of New England's top offense was consistent with the up-and-down training camp practices we've seen all summer.
There are moments where Jones has time to step up and deliver to skill players capable of creating explosive plays, but sequencing together positive plays is a challenge right now.
With Senior Football Advisor Matt Patrica in the drivers seat to call offensive plays, the Patriots will need to evolve beyond a boom-or-bust, big-play offense when the games start to count.
New England's offense stayed true to how things look in practice, and the defense was similar. The Pats got contributions from their pass rush to limit two consecutive Panther drives, and New England's secondary aligned as expected with Jonathan Jones on the outside.
While keeping things in context with the vast majority of Carolina's starters sitting out Friday night's contest, there was enough optimism to see where the Patriots are heading this season.
Here are ten observations from the Patriots victory over the Panthers in their second preseason game:
1. Powerful Play of the Game presented by Enel: Mac Jones Connects With Nelson Agholor for 45-Yard Completion
Things didn't go as planned for the Patriots offense out of the starting gates, but it didn't appear to be majorly on Jones. Jones's first incompletion was a drop by wide receiver DeVante Parker. Mac was likely protecting Parker from the oncoming safety and expecting the veteran wideout to sit his slant route down rather than continuing into coverage. Jones then threw high while under pressure on an in-breaking route to Jakobi Meyers off play-action, and his third-down throw to Rhamondre Stevenson was the one ball that could've been better.
The night's highlight came when Jones dropped a beautiful deep ball into Agholor to set up a touchdown. Jones recognized man coverage and Jonnu Smith's crossing route held the post-safety in the middle of the field, presenting single coverage to the speedy Agholor. Agholor beat his man off the line, and Mac put it on him perfectly for a 45-yard completion.
The Patriots need their starting quarterback to execute more consistently to avoid short-circuiting drives, but Mac's improved deep ball showed up on Friday night.
2. Patriots WR Tyquan Thornton Ruled Out With a Shoulder Injury
At first, this optimistic reporter thought that the Patriots second-round pick had moved up the depth chart to the point where he was beyond snaps with the backups. Unfortunately, the talented first-year receiver was ruled out later in the night with a shoulder injury. Although it's unclear when it occurred, Thornton was brought down hard by several Panthers on his lone reception.
Thornton's 13-yard catch was also a building block for his vertical route tree. With Thornton exploding off the line, the rookie stopped down in the cushion created by his 4.28-speed to make a catch in front of the defender. By showing corners that he can decelerate off a vertical stem, defenders can't wait on Thornton's vertical routes. Hopefully, Thornton's injury isn't severe.
3. Led by Pro Bowler Matt Judon, Sub-Package Rushers Look Ready for Regular Season
For a Patriots defense looking for more dynamic playmakers this season, the third-down pass rush package caught the eye in Friday night's win. New England rushed Panthers backup quarterback P.J. Walker with Matt Judon, Christian Barmore, Deatrich Wise, and Josh Uche, forming a four-man front. Judon and Uche consistently beat the tackles across from them while Judon and Wise combined for a sack on a T/E stunt.
The explosive 2020 second-round pick beat sixth overall selection Ikem Ekwonu around the edge for a first-quarter sack. Uche used a speed-rip move to get underneath Ekwonu and turn the corner, going right around the highly-touted first-rounder to sack Walker on third down. Hopefully, a sign that Uche is coming into his own entering his third season.
4. Dealing With Injuries, Patriots Starting Offensive Line Plays Into Second Half
New England is dealing with a host of injuries along the offensive line that led to a creative starting five on Friday night (LT - Cajuste, LG - Strange, C - Andrews, RG - Ferentz, RT - Onwenu). Although five-time team captain David Andrews came out after Jones's final series, the other four starters remained in the game for seven drives.
Based on our initial viewing, rookie left guard Cole Strange had several key blocks in the running game, including springing Damien Harris on a seven-yard outside zone handoff. Strange also seemed to fare well in pass protection, with some noticeable shutdown blocks in one-on-one engagements. Cajuste, who was filling in for starting tackles Trent Brown and Isaiah Wynn, is pushing the injured Justin Herron for top swing tackle duties. As always, a thorough film review is needed to assess the offensive line on Friday night properly.
5. Patriots CB Jonathan Jones Holds Up at Outside Corner, Myles Bryant Top Slot CB
For those reading our practice reports here on Patriots.com, seeing long-time slot corner Jonathan Jones move to the boundary wasn't a surprise. Jones played on the outside, with Jalen Mills manning the other boundary corner spot while Myles Bryant played in the slot. Jones held up well, covering two vertical routes nicely on third down to force incompletions.
One of those coverage reps came against Panthers wide receiver Keith Kirkwood. At 6-foot-3, Kirkwood is the type of matchup that worries you against the smaller Jones, but Jones was up for the task. Rookie Marcus Jones didn't see the field until inside of two minutes in the second quarter, meaning Bryant is currently ahead of the third-round pick as the top nickel corner.
6. Patriots LB Anfernee Jennings Earns Start at Outside Linebacker
It's safe to describe the 2020 third-round pick's summer as a breakout training camp. After battling injuries and a short-lived trial at off-ball linebacker, Jennings is back on the edge of the defense and earned the start on Friday night. With the Pats basing out of a 3-4 front, Jennings was at outside linebacker opposite Matt Judon in the starting defense. Jennings's ability to set the edge and power through blockers to dent the pocket has shown up throughout camp. He has emerged as a sturdy early-down option when the Pats align in an odd front.
7. Small Surprise With Patriots Inside Linebacker Rotation
Despite a strong few weeks for newcomer Mack Wilson and second-year Patriot Raekwon McMillan, the Pats went with fourth-year linebacker Jahlani Tavai next to Ja'Whaun Bentley at the second level of the defense. The coaching staff is high on Tavai's four-down value, and he has made some plays as an interior blitzer in practice, but Wilson and McMillan bring some much-needed speed to the linebacker level. Wilson has the best closing speed and open-field tackling skills in coverage among the Pats inside linebackers, while McMillan can also cover ground and come downhill. Tavai could present more value in the kicking game, but Wilson, in particular, plays with another gear that this defense needs. It's hard to envision keeping McMillan and Wilson off the field.
8. Patriots RB/WR Ty Montgomery Flashes Potential in Third-Down Back Role
As the Patriots continue to figure out life after James White, it was noteworthy to see Damien Harris and Rhamondre Stevenson get the opportunity to play on third down. Harris made a nice blitz pickup in one passing situation during his time on the field. However, as shown by his third-down conversion out of the backfield, Ty Montgomery is the team's most natural fit in the receiving back role. Montgomery won the race to the corner with the boundary defender pinching inside in his zone to move the chains on a pass from Jones. Later in the drive, Montgomery punched the ball in for a two-yard touchdown. The veteran has the inside track to replace White in the offense.
9. Strong Preseason Performances Enough for WR Lil'Jordan Humphrey?
Humphrey is having a good summer, practice included. He has enough route-running skill to combine with his size, making him a tough guy to cover over the middle. We have seen him run the seam effectively throughout training camp, and he made a Slater-like save to down a punt inside the five-yard line. If Humphrey earns a roster spot, making plays on special teams will help him as much as the plays at receiver.
10. Keep an Eye on Undrafted Rookies Brenden Schooler and DaMarcus Mitchell
With the starters getting some playing time tonight, it was notable to see Schooler and Mitchell on the field for the opening kickoff. The undrafted rookies are practicing on several special teams units.