The word of the day for the Patriots offense following an up-and-down day one to joint practices in Green Bay was consistency.
After practice, quarterback Mac Jones stressed the need for the offense, which started hot before fizzling out in Wednesday's session, to be more consistent. On Thursday, the offense answered the call to have their best day of the summer, especially given the fact that it came against another opponent.
Bill O'Brien's exciting red zone play designs kicked off an impressive offensive showing, with both Jones and backup Bailey Zappe lighting up the Packers defense from inside the 20-yard line. With the Pats top two quarterbacks feeling it, a slew of pass-catchers were on the receiving end of those passes: DeVante Parker, JuJu Smith-Schuster, Demario Douglas, tight end Anthony Firkser, and the best play execution came on Jones's throw to Kendrick Bourne.
With two receivers to Jones's right, Bourne worked against Pro Bowl corner Jaire Alexander. The inside receiver ran an inside hitch route to pull the slot defender out of the passing lane, leaving Bourne with favorable leverage on Alexander. Bourne used a subtle head fake to bluff an outside break, broke inside, and Mac threw with perfect anticipation for a touchdown.
As the training camp days go by, Jones's timing and anticipation on rhythm throws have greatly improved in O'Brien's offense. Along with improving timing on rhythm throws, which was apparent even in Wednesday's session, Jones and the starting offense took a big step forward on progression throws on Thursday, an area where the top group wasn't as sharp yesterday. On day one, the two-minute drives were less crisp, with multiple penalties, sacks, and not much going on downfield. However, that changed in a big way in Thursday's session.
New England's starting offense concluded practice on a high note when Jones uncorked a 40-yard bomb down the left sideline to DeVante Parker. Parker beat Packers starting corner Rasul Douglas on a go route, Jones hit him in-stride for six in a "need a touchdown to win" two-minute situation, and the Pats sidelined emptied in celebration.
The Parker deep ball capped off an excellent showing from the Patriots starting offense, one of Jones's best camp practices arguably in his career, and even got a reaction from head coach Bill Belichick. It was a step in the right direction, and pressure on the quarterback only became a slight issue briefly in the middle portion of the practice.
With the team heading into an off-day on Friday, we could see Jones and the starters for the first time this preseason on Saturday night at Lambeau Field. If they do play, Thursday's session will hopefully serve as a launching pad to a good dress rehearsal with three weeks to go before the regular season begins.
Here are six takeaways from an encouraging practice for the Patriots offense on Thursday:
1. RB Ezekiel Elliott Participates in Team Drills in Second Practice with Patriots
Along with an impressive showing from the passing offense, New England's running game got a boost as Elliott was a full participant in team drills on Thursday. For starters, Elliott's size at six feet, 225 pounds catches the eye. The Pats already had bigger backs on the roster with Rhamondre Stevenson (6-0, 227) and Kevin Harris (5-10, 225), and adding Elliott's big frame into the mix makes it even clear that this team wants to be a power-run operation.
As for his on-field performance, Elliott also checked that box with impressive touchdown runs in red zone work, an area where he might be a huge factor for this offense. The Pats new running back burst through the Packers defense for an eight-yard score and punched a goal-line carry into the end zone from about the two-yard line. For his first practice this summer, Elliott looked strong and energized. He also ran a few routes, including one as a flexed-out receiver. Although he didn't get much between the 20s work, I'm still trusting last year's tape when saying the breakaway speed probably isn't there anymore. Still, Elliott ran with good power and was fully invested in practice, celebrating his new teammates' success along the sideline. It was a good first impression.
2. QB Mac Jones's Timing, Anticipation Rapidly Improving This Summer
With the Patriots offense trying to get the train back on the tracks this season, the things Jones doesn't do well or can't do coming off a rocky second season are often major talking points. New England's starting quarterback isn't an elite runner, and he doesn't possess Josh Allen-like arm talent, but he throws with great timing and accuracy.
Along with the Bourne touchdown highlighted above, another anticipatory throw came on a connection with tight end Hunter Henry up the seam. With Henry creating the angle by bending his route into the seam, Jones released the pass so early that the ball essentially caught Henry, with the Pats tight end holding off a man coverage defender with one arm and catching a perfectly placed pass up against his body with his right hand.
A re-energized Jones is back to emphasizing the carrying traits that got him here, such as accuracy/touch, processing speed, pre-snap IQ, and playing in rhythm. The red zone sequence where Jones was anticipating his receivers' every move to put the ball on them early is exactly what the Patriots need from Mac. Since he's not necessarily going to beat tight coverage with bullet passes or extend plays with his legs, Jones needs to remain a step ahead.
3. Although it Wasn't Perfect, Patriots O-Line Cleaned Some Things Up on Thursday
After a bumpy performance in the first practice with the Packers, the Patriots offensive line delivered a more respectable effort on Thursday. No, it wasn't perfect, but they did enough for Jones to make plays from the pocket and opened a few running lanes for Stevenson and Elliott. Although evaluating offensive line play without reviewing the film is challenging, this was a fine performance from the big bodies up front. Again, not great, but you'll take it as a positive step.
The biggest breakdowns came with schemed pressures via defensive line stunts, where a group that lacks reps together and features two rookies is still building chemistry. Green Bay's defense had two instant schemed pressures where Jones would've been sacked, and left tackle Trent Brown appeared to get beat around his edge on another would-be sack where he might've gotten his feet tangled. Then, there was a fourth sack where Mac might've had Kendrick Bourne on a quick hitch, but he held the ball too long. Although four sacks sounds like too many, it was 6-7 sacks on Wednesday, so this was a slight improvement. The good news is that there were fewer penalties, fewer jailbreak/pocket-collapsing pressures, and the quarterbacks were hitting plays downfield on time.
However, New England's depth, which took another hit with Conor McDermott absent from practice, remains an issue. The Patriots are now practicing without starters Cole Strange and Mike Onwenu, newcomer Calvin Anderson, Kody Russey, and McDermott. There are only a few healthy bodies in the offensive line room right now. On a positive note, seeing Onwenu around the team and doing conditioning work lately has been good.
Check out photos from joint practices between the Patriots and Packers on Thursday, Aug. 17, 2023.
4. Rookie WR Kayshon Boutte Finds the End Zone Once Again in Two-Minute Drill
As we mentioned in yesterday's notes, my latest projection had rookie receiver Kayshon Boutte narrowly missing out on a 53-man roster spot. Well, the sixth-round pick is making me eat a little crow this week, as he followed up a four-catch performance with a solid finish to practice on Thursday. Working with Zappe in the two-minute drill, Boutte ran a pretty-looking whip route on the goal line, keeping his feet in bounds to cap off the drive with a touchdown. Boutte's straight-line speed, strong hands, and body control to work the sideline give him a chance to make the team. As for fellow rookie Demario Douglas, he had his moments, too, with two touchdowns in red zone work, including a nifty corner route where a switch release left him all alone. The Pats rookie wideouts are having strong weeks here in Green Bay.
5. WR Tyquan Thornton Leaves Practice With Undisclosed Injury
After making his best catch this summer in an early 11-on-11 period, wide receiver Tyquan Thornton left practice early with an undisclosed injury. Thornton got behind the defense and made an impressive diving catch, but it might've come at a cost. This is the second time Thornton's health is in question this training camp, while the second-year wideout also missed time in the spring. Thornton had moments yesterday where he was open downfield and caught a deep pass from Jones on Thursday, but the unfortunate reality is that he has to be available. Hopefully, Thornton avoided a significant injury.
6. WR Tre Nixon Has Early-Practice Highlight on Long Touchdown Catch
With Thornton's status now uncertain, it's worth mentioning that third-year receiver Tre Nixon made one of the biggest plays of the day in an early team period. Nixon ran right by the defender on a go route, and Zappe placed the pass perfectly for a roughly 40-yard score. Nixon might not have the upside of the first and second-year guys, but he has some juice to stretch the field.