For the first day and a half of Patriots training camp, quarterback Mac Jones and the offense had the upper hand against a revamped defense.
In 7-on-7 periods, Jones completed passes into tight coverage to tight end duo Hunter Henry and Jonnu Smith and dropped a dime to wide receiver Kendrick Bourne in the corner of the end zone. Then, the Pats quarterback connected with first-year Patriot receiver DeVante Parker on a low back-shoulder throw for Parker's fourth touchdown in two days during red zone work.
However, Patriots head coach Bill Belichick ended practice with a competitive 11-on-11 period, where the competition ramped up to a level that we haven't seen this spring and summer yet.
During that session, the Patriots' defense responded by forcing ten-straight incompletions by the offense before Jones ended practice with a touchdown pass to Henry in the left flat.
In the final sequence of competitive team drills, Jones was forced to throw the ball away when the pocket deteriorated, sailed a pass out of the back of the end zone with Jack Jones in tight coverage on Parker, and just missed a completion to Nelson Agholor with Butler close by in coverage. Jalen Mills then broke up a slant intended for Agholor, and Adrian Phillips had tight coverage on Henry as another pass fell incomplete.
From this perspective, the 11-throw sequence was the best New England's defense has looked in non-padded practices to date.
"Offense got us yesterday, and we got them today, and that's what you want in these camp days. You never want it to be one-sided," said cornerback Jalen Mills.
"That's our mentality every practice, every period, we want to dominate. They got good guys on the other side of the ball, so sometimes they win, and sometimes we win. But we want to make sure we have an attacking mentality when the ball is in the air," added safety Adrian Phillips.
New England's secondary is replacing Pro Bowl corner J.C. Jackson after he signed with the Los Angeles Chargers in free agency. So far, Mills and Phillips remain top contributors, with fellow vets Devin McCourty and Kyle Dugger in their usual spots.
Also in the mix are Terrance Mitchell, Malcolm Butler, rookies Marcus and Jack Jones, and one of the early standouts from Pats camp, second-year safety Joshuah Bledsoe, who has five pass breakups through two practices.
Bledsoe had competitive reps early in practice, locking down Pats' tight end Dalton Keene and breaking up a pass in the end zone for Jonnu Smith. His tight coverage on tight ends has stood out through two practices, as he plays a role similar to Dugger and Phillips's in the Pats defense.
"Josh [Bledsoe] was flying around out there today. He missed last season because of his hand, but now he's getting a chance to show the coaches what he can do," Mills told Patriots.com.
As a veteran in the same position group, Phillips is also noticing Bledsoe's strong start to the summer, adding, "he's just grown. He's learning. He's asking questions. Stuff that you want to see from a young guy. He's eager to get out there and mess up sometimes. That happens in our field. He's not afraid to, and he wants to get another rep."
Along with Bledsoe, Mitchell is making a strong first impression and is an early front-runner to earn a starting role. Last season, Mitchell held his own at outside corner for the Texans with a respectable 544 yards allowed into his coverage on 429 snaps, per Pro Football Focus.
The nine-year vet plays like the experienced corner he is, and although he might not "wow" you with on-ball production, he has good field awareness and a strong understanding of his role.
"[Mitchell] is smart, he's experienced, he's a good instinctive player, and he's had some good production through the opportunities while we've been here," Patriots head coach Bill Belichick told reporters before practice. "We'll see how that goes when we get the padded training camp practices going."
After the Patriots' offense got the better of the defense until the end of day two, the back-and-forth on the field and the chatter on the sidelines are fueling a competitive start to camp.
"We are always talking. You got Damian [Harris] on the sideline talking. You got Mac [Jones] being super dramatic over there and doing his thing," Phillips said. "Then, we got Devin [McCourty] on our sideline. We just love to talk and compete with each other. At the end of the day, if you make it fun and competitive out there, now you know you're getting the best of everybody."
The Patriots defense heads into the 2022 season with question marks in the back seven due to offseason departures and long-time vets no longer in the building, such as Dont'a Hightower.
Although it's very early in the summer, the friendly competition tilts more towards the defense when the Patriots are in full team periods or 11-on-11s versus 7-on-7 drills.