After spending the last two days holding joint practices in Green Bay, head coach Bill Belichick and the Patriots coaching staff reflected on the pair of sessions with the Packers on Friday morning.
"We've benefited a lot from working against the Packers. They are really good to work against," Belichick said on Friday morning. "We've benefited a lot from the competition and seeing the different style plays. Seeing different types of players. It was really good working against the Packers. The facilities have been great, and it's been two good days for us here."
Following an uneven first practice where the Packers had the upper hand, a theme for New England's players and coaches was how the team bounced back on day two. Green Bay landed the big punches in the opening session, but the Pats responded. After the defense stopped Green Bay's starting offense, quarterback Mac Jones hit wide receiver DeVante Parker for a roughly 40-yard touchdown pass in a two-minute situation where the offense needed six points to win. Following the top units' success, backup Bailey Zappe also led a touchdown drive.
"It was really good work for all of us. Good work for the coaching staff to see something on the field, correct it, go back out there later in practice, have it come up again, and make the adjustment. For the team to be able to make those adjustments as well, those were great learning situations," Belichick added. "There was certainly a lot of growth by individuals and units and situational understanding."
As the team turns its attention to Saturday night's second preseason game, Belichick explained that he'll meet with the coaching staff to discuss player participation in this weekend's exhibition contest later in the day on Friday. Last summer, Mac Jones and other frontliners on offense played three drives, or 16 snaps, in the second preseason game following joint practices with Carolina, so one would expect a similar script this time around.
Along with general thoughts from this week's joint practices in Green Bay, here are five more takeaways from offensive coordinator Bill O'Brien and the rest of the offensive assistants:
1. OC Bill O'Brien and RBs Coach Vinnie Sunseri Discuss Ezekiel Elliott Addition
The Patriots offense is receiving a boost in the backfield, with the team adding three-time Pro Bowl running back Ezekiel Elliott to the roster earlier this week. After officially signing on Wednesday, Elliott was in uniform but was extremely limited in his first practice session with the team in Green Bay. However, the former Cowboys star upped his level of participation in Thursday's session. Elliott took handoffs during live team drills in the second practice, scoring twice from inside the ten-yard line, and also ran routes from various alignments.
Speaking to reporters on Friday morning, running backs coach Vinnie Sunseri said that the staff is still working through roles and how Elliott will split carries with lead-back Rhamondre Stevenson. But acknowledged that adding Elliott to the mix has energized the entire team.
"We're still in the early beginning parts of training camp. So we haven't discussed any of that playing time or any of that stuff. As training camp continues to progress, as we get closer to the season, we'll see how all this stuff unfolds," Sunseri began. "But I think everybody's been pretty excited for Zeke to come in. Between the receivers, quarterbacks, and the defense, he's brought a little bit of excitement. He's brought a little bit of juice. He's exciting on the football field."
Despite too small a sample size to fully evaluate Elliott's skill set and projected role in the offense, O'Brien described Elliott as a "three-down back" as he gets integrated into the system.
"One thing you see right away is that he's smart. He's been in different systems, he understands football. Maybe they call it apples, we call it oranges, but it's still football, and he gets it. He picks up on it really quick," O'Brien said. "I do think he's a three-down back, and he's been a really good addition the last two days to our football team. We're really happy to have him."
Only time will tell how much he has left in the tank, but Elliott has left a solid first impression with his practice performance on Thursday and how he has energized his teammates.
2. O-Line Coach Adrian Klemm Offers Update on Mike Onwenu (PUP), Rookie Sidy Sow
Another positive sign coming from joint practices in Green Bay has been the presence of starting guard Mike Onwenu. Onwenu, who hasn't participated in practice yet this summer, is currently on the physically unable to perform list after ongoing offseason ankle surgery, per ESPN's Mike Reiss. Onwenu can come off the PUP list at any time, but the clock is ticking 23 days before the regular-season opener against Philly.
Seeing Onwenu make the trip to Green Bay and go through some conditioning work has been a positive sign for a key piece to New England's offensive line. Although continuity and performance are a work in progress for the O-Line, getting their core group back with Onwenu and 2022 first-rounder Cole Strange out of the lineup would go a long way.
"He's just working hard every single day. He's at the same point as everybody else intellectually and just picking things up. Everything that we install, he's involved with that," Klemm said of Onwenu. "He's just doing his job because he's here every day as if he's playing, and he's mentally ready whenever the time comes."
With the Patriots now 16 practices into training camp, Klemm acknowledged that it's been challenging to assess the offensive line due to the various injuries in the room.
"We haven't had the time to really have any continuity in our room," Klemm said. "It's been a lot of moving pieces, just hopefully it does settle down here in a couple of weeks to get a better feel for it, but really we haven't had an opportunity to play as a complete unit."
Due to the constant shuffling up front, fourth-rounder Sidy Sow has been elevated to the top right tackle spot in recent practices. Sow played mostly at guard on the interior in college. But with a relative athletic score of 9.03 out of ten, the rookie has the measurable to play tackle.
"He's starting to build some competitive poise. He's a young guy, and some things are new to him. But he's very intelligent, very sharp, and he's been able to apply a number of things to the field that he's taken from the classroom. It's just a matter of being consistent," Klemm added.
The Patriots seem hopeful that reinforcements will arrive with Onwenu and Strange returning to the lineup for the regular-season opener. In the meantime, younger players such as Sow and fifth-rounder Atonio Mafi are getting valuable experience in training camp.
3. O'Brien, WRs Coach Troy Brown Discuss Slot Receivers and Demario Douglas
Another ongoing discussion about the Patriots offensive outlook is how O'Brien's offense emphasizes the middle of the field. Particularly, feeding receivers running routes out of the slot.
Historically, the Patriots have relied on smaller, quicker, jitterbug-like slot receivers in the Julian Edelman or Wes Welker mold. However, more recently, the team has featured bigger body types inside, such as Jakobi Meyers, Kendrick Bourne, and now JuJu Smith-Schuster.
"Back when I was in college, the last couple of years at Alabama, we used different types of players in the slot too. So it's an ever-evolving position," O'Brien said. "It goes back to continuing to learn what these guys do and making sure that we're putting them in the best spots to take advantage of what they can do."
Bourne and Smith-Schuster project to play significant roles out of the slot, but sixth-rounder Demario Douglas is more in line with the original skill set New England leaned on inside. In O'Brien's system, it's great to have short-area quickness on the inside to run option routes such as the juke series, and Douglas fits the mold of that type of player.
"He's got some quickness, catches the ball well, and he runs with the ball well, so those are all good things that you'd love to have in any wide receiver," wide receivers coach Troy Brown said of Douglas.
Although it's still early to project him as an instant contributor in his rookie season, Douglas brings unique explosiveness and quickness that typically thrive in O'Brien's system.
4. Evaluating a Strong Summer for WR DeVante Parker in Second Season With Patriots
Earlier this offseason, the Patriots signed veteran receiver DeVante Parker to a three-year contract extension that surprised some due to his age (30) and recent injury history.
However, Parker has responded to the vote of confidence from the Patriots with a solid all-around training camp, where his explosiveness as an outside receiver has stood out. On Thursday, Parker's exclamation point to practice came when he ran by Packers starting corner Rasul Douglas on a go route on a bomb from quarterback Mac Jones for a 40-yard touchdown.
"DeVante has always been a receiver that is pretty explosive. Even in Miami, when he was down there, he made some big plays for his football team and our team as well," Brown told Patriots.com. "He is making some plays down the field in camp, and hopefully that continues."
Parker is typically near the bottom amongst all receivers in NextGen's separation metrics, but he is testing corners vertically with his long speed more this summer, and his enormous catch radius to make catches outside his frame and through contact makes him a big-play threat.
5. WRs Coach Ross Douglas on Bill O'Brien's System: "It's a lot to learn."
Lastly, the Patriots quarterbacks and skill players have talked in detail this summer about the complexities of new offensive coordinator Bill O'Brien's system. O'Brien's offense, which he has added to over the years, is a hefty playbook that takes a lot of studying to learn as a player.
Although that might be perceived as challenging, wide receivers coach Ross Douglas described learning the system slightly differently, saying, "I wouldn't say it's hard, but it's a lot to learn. But once you've learned it, it's like riding a bike."
O'Brien's system has been a breath of fresh air because of its variety in schemes and how easily adjustable it is for players to make changes before and after the snap. Last season, New England's offense was often described as predictable. With all the concepts at their disposal this year, that will no longer be the case.