Back in the spring, five-time team captain David Andrews had a great perspective on changes the Patriots were making to their offensive system.
Andrews explained that the goal in minicamp and training camp in the lead-up to the regular season is working through things to find out what the strengths are of this collection of players.
Fast-forward a few months, and starting quarterback Mac Jones echoed a similar sentiment as his starting center during his weekly appearance on WEEI's Merloni, Fauria, and Mego.
"I think we have really good players, really good skill players I can spread the ball around to. But every system's different, right? So it's kind of getting a feel for what you want to do, what your m.o. is as an offense. The big thing right now is figuring that out."
After taking in two more days of joint practices with the Raiders, New England is still searching for a definitive answer to that question: what is the Patriots offense in the 2022 season?
As we've talked about all summer, the Patriots have experimented with more under-center zone-blocking concepts and play-action built off those stretch runs. But there were obvious growing pains, which continued in a more run-heavy session on Tuesday in Vegas.
Although it was during situational work, Jones and company moved the football with the most success in the two-minute, hurry-up portions of practice. In those instances, the Pats spread the field and put the game in Jones's hands, and the second-year quarterback mostly excelled.
"It's always good to know that you're throwing it and feel comfortable and know what you're trying to get, whether that's a field goal or a touchdown," Jones told Patriots.com of his comfort level in the two-minute offense.
"You get to play a little bit of the game within the game. 'I need this many yards or that many yards,' and obviously, you know you're throwing it. So, that's a lot of it. You could have the worst day ever, and you could be down by a lot of points in a real game, but if it's 10-10 at the end of the game, you go down and score or kick a field goal to win, then nothing matters before that."
The Patriots appear to be transitioning away from some elements of their under-center offense, such as a traditional fullback, but operating from under-center is still a significant part of their system.
Plus, playing the entire game like it's a two-minute drill isn't an option. Sure, more tempo works in certain situations or game plans. But you aren't going to play that way all the time.
Ultimately, the Patriots will incorporate a little bit of everything throughout a 17-game regular season. But when it comes to offensive identity, it's become clearer with each competitive practice that they're at their best when the game is in Jones's hands.
Spread it out, get the ball out, and incorporate the running game from more shotgun formations than in recent seasons. Maybe sprinkle in a few run-pass options; is that the Patriots offense's identity?
Although it feels like that's the case, we'll have to wait and see when the Patriots begin the regular season down in Miami against the Dolphins.
Here are ten more takeaways from the Patriots trip to Las Vegas for joint practices with the Raiders:
1. Patriots Defensive Front a Strength to Lean on Defensively
This week, the most consistent unit for the Patriots against the Raiders was the defensive front, which had the upper hand in the trenches during both practices. Matthew Judon looks poised for another Pro Bowl-caliber season, logging multiple "sacks" of Raiders quarterback Derek Carr, getting his hands in passing lanes, and showing up against the run. The pass-rush package of Judon, edge rusher Josh Uche, and defensive linemen Christian Barmore and Deatrich Wise has now given the Patriots, Panthers, and Raiders offensive lines problems. Plus, Vegas only broke off a few positive running plays with Davon Godchaux and Lawrence Guy anchoring the defensive line. Veteran linebacker Ja'Whaun Bentley made an impact against the run and pass as well. It was a good two days and a great camp for this group.
2. Patriots CBs Jalen Mills and Jonathan Jones Battle With All-Pro Receiver Davante Adams
Adams is a special talent, and watching him up close in a practice setting was impressive. He was a challenge for every Pats corner over the last two days, and he got Mills all three times in Tuesday's one-on-one battle. But give the Pats corner credit. Mills came back to win both reps against Adams and break up a pass in one-on-one's in Wednesday's practice. Plus, Adams only got loose on day two when he was going against the Pats second-string corners. Jonathan Jones also had tight coverage on Adams towards the end of day one and then forced a high throw with good coverage again the next day. When you go against Adams, he's going to make plays, especially without a game plan centered around slowing him down. Still, the Pats top cornerback tandem deserves credit for battling with Adams for two-straight days.
Also of note at cornerback, rookie Jack Jones elevated to the second unit as Shaun Wade was a limited participant. Terrance Mitchell was on the other boundary spot, and had some issues against Mack Hollins, while Marcus Jones was the second-string slot corner. Mitchell and Wade are likely competing for one roster spot.
3. Examining Patriots Options at Right Tackle, Isaiah Wynn's Future
Due to starting right tackle Isaiah Wynn's bumps and bruises, backups Justin Herron and Yodny Cajuste are both got opportunities to play with the starting unit. A healthy Wynn is still New England's best option at right tackle, and it's not a coincidence that Raiders Pro Bowl pass-rusher Maxx Crosby began taking over the practice after Wynn left the session on Wednesday. Herron took his place with the other starters and had a lot of trouble against Crosby. Cajuste earned that playing time when Herron was held out of practice for a bit and is having his best camp yet, but he is inconsistent and is still a work in progress mentally in the running game. Herron and Cajuste are serviceable backups, but there's a drop-off from Wynn.
4. Can Third-Year Pass Rusher Josh Uche Put it Together for a Full Season?
Uche had another strong week to cap off a great training camp entering his third season with the Patriots. However, it's not the first time that Uche has flashed his explosive first-step and pass-rush abilities in the summertime, as the 2020 second-round pick had a similar summer a year ago. The problem for Uche isn't talent or carving out a role. He'll be in the mix on passing downs, but he needs to stay healthy and be consistent. With the Pats moving on from veterans Kyle Van Noy and Dont'a Hightower this season, New England's defense needs Uche to put it together for an entire season. He is a major part of their pass defense now. Just ask Derek Carr, who had Uche in his face plenty over the last two days.
5. Patriots WR/RB Ty Montgomery Thriving in Receiving Back Role
Although we'd all love to see Damien Harris and Rhamondre Stevenson more involved in the passing game, this week solidified that Montgomery is the best player on the roster to take over the James White role. On Wednesday, Montgomery beat Raiders linebacker Jayon Brown twice for touchdowns, once in 7-on-7s and again in full-team drills. The veteran has good burst into the flat to out-run linebackers to the corner and can move around the formation due to his background as a wide receiver. He became a safety valve for Mac Jones in the two practices here in Las Vegas. It shouldn't shock anyone if he sees a significant amount of targets this season as a reliable check-down option and a mismatch against linebackers.
6. Patriots TE Hunter Henry Makes an Impact in Return to Practice
The minor ailment that held tight end Hunter Henry out of practice and last Friday night's preseason game against the Panthers was a non-factor this week. Henry returned to practice as a full-go, and the Jones-to-Henry connection led the final touchdown drive for New England's offense on Wednesday. Henry is as reliable as ever between the numbers and in the red zone, working a seam pattern for a chunk play and then toe-tapping in the back of the end zone for six. He should flirt with double-digit touchdowns again.
7. Patriots WR Jakobi Meyers Re-Emerges as Mac Jones's Top Target
Typically, we spout the line that Meyers doesn't do anything spectacular but is reliable and consistent out of the slot. Although he was still those things, Meyers added two incredible contested catches to the training camp ledger on goal-line fades on Wednesday. The first over-the-shoulder catch was one for the highlight-reel, as Meyers fought off Raiders safety Trevon Moehrig in the back of the end zone for six. It looks like Meyers will play a large role in the offense again this season, which isn't a surprise.
8. Patriots Give Different Looks at Second Level With Inside Linebackers
At this point, the Patriots have a clear top-four at inside linebacker that are likely to make the roster: Ja'Whaun Bentley (lock), Raekwon McMillan (lock), Mack Wilson (lock), and Jahlani Tavai. In a run-heavy first day, Tavai saw a lot of reps next to Bentley in New England's base defense. But as passing took over joint practices, McMillan and Wilson got their opportunities. We also continued to see sprinklings of Bentley playing on the edge of the defense with McMillan as the lone linebacker at the second level, forming a 5-1 front. Until the regular-season games start, it's unclear what the plan is for Tavai. Clearly, the team sees four-down value in the veteran, but it doesn't seem like the best option. Eventually, you'd think the more athletic McMillan or Wilson will overtake Tavai.
9. Filling Out the Backup Offensive Line Depth Chart With Cutdown Day Looming
Based on how active the starters were during joint practices, it wouldn't be a major surprise if the Patriots used the third preseason game as a final exam for the last few spots on their initial 53-man roster. One of those battles is at the backend of the offensive line depth chart, where athletic guard/tackles Arlington Hambright and Will Sherman are our leaders in the clubhouse. With Cajuste, Herron, and veteran James Ferentz taking up three backup spots, one would expect the Patriots to carry two more offensive linemen. The other roster candidate is undrafted rookie Kody Russey, who has put out good game tape this summer. When you incorporate what we see in practice, Russey feels like Ferentz did a few years ago. Smart, good play demeanor, packs a punch for a smaller player but maybe a year away physically. Russey is a prime candidate for the practice squad like Ferentz was in his first few seasons. Another dark-horse candidate is sixth-round pick Chasen Hines. Hines hasn't practiced as much as the others, but his playing strength translates in the running game.
10. Final Spots at Tight End, Wide Receiver Come Down to Preseason Finale
Another backend of the roster competition is the final spots at tight end and wide receiver. Unless there's a trade at wide receiver, the Pats will likely carry DeVante Parker, Jakobi Meyers, Nelson Agholor, Kendrick Bourne, and Tyquan Thornton on the initial roster. We know Hunter Henry and Jonnu Smith will be here at tight end. Do they initially carry a sixth receiver such as Lil'Jordan Humphrey, Tre Nixon, or Kristian Wilkerson? Along the same lines, has Devin Asiasi or Matt Sokol shown enough to make the roster as TE3? The Patriots didn't give that group much run in joint practices with the starters dominating the reps, so Friday night is it for them.