The Patriots returned to the practice field for their tenth training camp practice with an apparent theme headlined by increased participation for a key player in their defense.
Fresh off agreeing to a contract adjustment that could allow him to make up to $18 million this season, four-time Pro Bowler Matthew Judon had his most active practice yet, where he was a handful to block for the Pats patchwork offensive line. Judon, who was coy about his limited participation before re-working his deal, was dominant in Sunday's non-padded session.
After spending most of the first nine training camp practices on the conditioning fields, Judon registered two practice "sacks" and another pressure on the Patriots quarterback. First, he went around right tackle Conor McDermott with his patented inside move, where he fakes outside to cross over inside the tackle, and followed that up with a tackle/end stunt where he wrapped around untouched.
One must provide the context that the Patriots offensive line was down four expected starts, with David Andrews, Trent Brown, Cole Strange, and Mike Onwenu sitting out. Still, Judon, sporting his typical practice attire of a red-sleeved hoodie under his jersey, looked as dominant as ever.
"I'm happy. They're happy. We shook hands, and now we play football," Judon said after Sunday's practice. "I think it represents that they want to keep me around here, or keep me happy, or just that they see what I did. They appreciate it for the organization. When you do something like that, because honestly they didn't have to, but they helped me out so I can help the team out."
Since signing a four-year contract with the Patriots in free agency two offseasons ago, only two players have registered more sacks than the Pats star pass-rushers 28 sacks in that span. Although he only participated sparingly in team drills until this point, Judon credited his teammates for keeping him in shape in the opening stages of camp.
"It was easy to stay in shape. The guys I was working with while I was here were busting our butts. I was down there working with some faster guys just to kind of chase them and keep my conditioning up. As y'all can see, I'm filling out this sweatshirt. So I'm in pretty good shape. I'm in really good shape and just ready to play football," Judon told Patriots.com.
Now that the team's sack leader is back to participating fully in practice, the Patriots defense is starting to take shape heading into Thursday night's preseason opener against the Texans. Judon will likely be joined in the Pats defensive front by running mate Josh Uche, who broke out with a monster second half to the season a year ago, where he registered 11.5 sacks. Judon (15.5) and Uche were the only duo to each record 11.5-plus sacks in the 2022 season.
"As you guys know, that's like my older brother. To have Judon back on the team, the energy, the spirit, the wisdom he gives to everybody is a blessing," said Uche. "Pass rush-wise, from the first day he got here, it was just having somebody to look up to. How to be a professional. How to be a pass-rusher, how to be dominant. From the techniques, hand placement, footwork, you name it. I could go down the list."
With their edge-rushing duo leading the charge, the Patriots defense ranked third in the NFL with 54 sacks last season. Looking ahead to another challenging year facing many of the league's top offenses, New England's defense needs to turn it up to an even higher level this season.
Along with Judon and Uche leading a formidable defensive front, the Patriots added first-round selection Christian Gonzalez to their cornerback room in April's draft. Gonzalez, who has looked the part from the jump, had another strong practice with an interception in 7-on-7 drills and another pass breakup on a Mac Jones pass intended for Kendrick Bourne along the sideline.
Head coach Bill Belichick's defense, the top defense in Football Outsiders' weighted DVOA metric a year ago, has an infusion of young talent that will hopefully take them from very good to potentially elite in 2023. Gonzalez is the rookie expecting to make the biggest impact, but second-round pick Keion White also registered a hurry in Sunday's session, while third-rounder Marte Mapu is a hybrid player who has repped at both safety and linebacker.
In recent years, New England's defense has dominated inferior competition. But, as is the case for many defenses nowadays, elite quarterbacks and offenses have had more success against them. On the one hand, it brings into question whether or not shutdown defense truly exists in today's game, with enormous amounts of talent and rules that favor the offensive side of the ball.
Under new offensive coordinator Bill O'Brien, the Patriots offense is trying to catch up to the elite offenses lighting up the scoreboard on Sundays. Offensively, the Pats are making progress, but we are ten days into camp and have yet to see the starting offensive line play together. Although there's still time before the regular-season opener on September 10th, building continuity is critical to having a good offensive line.
An optimist would come away from Sunday's practice session with positive takeaways that Judon is back in the fold, and the Pats defensive front is wrecking plays again. However, it was frankly challenging to evaluate the Patriots passing game with so much pressure on the QBs.
Patriots quarterback Mac Jones started to find a rhythm late in practice, hitting wide receiver DeVante Parker for a roughly 40-yard touchdown to walk off on a high-note in a two-minute drill. On the play, Parker beat cornerback Jack Jones on a fade route, and the ball was placed perfectly by Jones for Parker to elevate above the Pats corner and trot into the end zone.
The deep-ball connection was a good bit of chemistry between the quarterback and one of his top receivers. Mac and Parker just missed on a downfield throw last week when Jones led the 6-foot-3 wideout a little too far into the end zone. This time, Jones put it where Parker could high-point the ball, which is more Parker's game than running underneath a leading throw.
Ultimately, it's difficult to get too concerned about the Patriots offensive line because we haven't seen the projected starting five on the field together yet. Right tackle remains a huge question mark, with veterans Conor McDermott and Riley Reiff in a camp battle for the starting job there. But an interior trio of Strange-Andrews-Onwenu should be solid, while a focused Trent Brown still has good football in him with the right motivational tactics.
Until we see the projected starting five at practice, the offensive line will continue to be a talking point amongst pundits as the biggest area of concern for this team, and it's certainly warranted.
New England's defensive front, which is one of the league's best, showed in Sunday's practice how difficult it can be to run a productive offense when the quarterbacks are under duress.