The theme of the first three days at training camp is that the Patriots defense, particularly in the secondary, is sending a message that they're primed for another terrific season.
New England's defense's coverage has made life incredibly difficult on the Pats receivers, with the two sides working exclusively in the red zone in these early sessions. Although important context is needed to explain the challenging situation for the offense, a secondary led by veteran corner Jonathan Jones and first-round draft choice Christian Gonzalez is showing out.
With head coach Bill Belichick pushing his team back into the high red zone just inside the 20-yard line, Jonathan Jones's two pass breakups were the high-water mark for a group that broke up eight passes in a shorts and shells session on Friday morning. After practicing the first two days without pads, the shells coming on signaled the next step toward contact this summer, but the results were the same all three days.
Defensively, the Patriots are beginning to lean slightly toward a cornerback trio where Jones and Gonzalez man the outside corner spots, with second-year CB Marcus Jones playing in the slot, who has been in a camp battle of sorts with fourth-year pro Myles Bryant on the inside.
New England's safety depth has also impressed. The defense has sometimes played out of three-safety packages, primarily with Kyle Dugger, Jabrill Peppers, and Adrian Phillips, while Joshuah Bledsoe and Jalen Mills are getting reps as well. As the backend transitions to the post-Devin McCourty era, Mills is trying out a new role where he's covering tight ends in man structures rather than playing outside corner. Mills is still battling for reps with the other frontline players but could free up Dugger to take on more of McCourty's responsibilities.
Although the elder Jones made two standout plays on the ball by breaking up a deep hitch and a jump ball toward the back pylon, both intended for DeVante Parker, Gonzalez has passed an initial eye test with flying colors and is en route to starting in Week 1. Gonzo flashed his smooth transitions to match the receivers break when he broke up a short in-cut intended for Tyquan Thornton, and his football IQ to play to his help in man coverage allowed him to suffocate JuJu Smith-Schuster at various points throughout the first three days of camp.
"[Gonzalez] has been great to work with, very diligent, he has done everything we've asked him to do, has improved every day," head coach Bill Belichick said before practice. "He's still got a long way to go like every rookie, but he's been great to work with. The rookie class, in general, has been good. They're really very attentive, good work ethic, they have been a pleasure to work with."
Gonzalez's quiet demeanor was used as a knock against him in the 2023 NFL Draft, with some pundits pointing to his reserved personality as a reason why he fell to 17th overall. However, the Pats rookie plays with great belief in his skills and swagger for a young player.
"It's been fun really being able to come in, learn and compete. Learn from all the guys in my position room and bond with them. Learn how they play, try to catch up, and just be out here to compete."
"It's something I've had. But it's always good to just come out and compete against the best. It doesn't get better than that. Just playing the position, gotta have confidence being out there," Gonzalez told reporters after Friday's practice.
Along with his smooth movement skills, Gonzalez's savvy has stood out in the early going. New England's man coverage-heavy system emphasizes corners playing to their help or leverage. For example, Pats coverages will have inside help from the safeties, either a deep safety or rat/robber help. The idea is to allow corners to eliminate routes in their heading, knowing they have help, so they can use body positioning to take away the rest of the routes.
Gonzalez is showing that he understands where his help is, using inside safety help to sit outside two Smith-Schuster routes to suffocate the Pats receiver on Thursday, for tangible evidence's sake.
"It's really fun to be able to come out here with the older safeties and the people in my room to learn from them and understand that there's help in different places," Gonzalez told Patriots.com. "It's just a bunch of meetings, coming to practice, and doing all that. Then you gotta do it all when you get home. You have to try to soak everything in as much as you can."
The other development in the initial days of camp for the Patriots secondary is second-year corner Marcus Jones elevating to the top slot cornerback spot. Although it's an ongoing competition, Jones has taken more reps than incumbent nickel corner Myles Bryant. With fellow second-year DB Jack Jones's ongoing legal issues, the Pats have relegated the 2022 fourth-rounder to second-team reps. That has pushed Jon Jones back outside and opened the door for Marcus Jones to step into the star/slot role in the Pats defense.
The 2022 third-rounder, a game-breaking returner and ball carrier, stays ready in case his number is called on offense. However, to this point, Jones has worked exclusively on defense and special teams, assuming his usual responsibilities as the team's top return man.
"I don't really see it as a stressful thing," Jones said of preparing to play in all three phases. "We have so many coaches that are open to helping you out. Also, teammates are there for you whenever you might have hiccups or things like that. So I don't really see it as a stressful thing."
"The main thing with playing inside and outside is your keys. Making sure that your eyes are in the right place. So just knowing where you are, where the offense is, and what you're trying to prevent from happening," Jones added about his role in the Patriots defense.
Along with discussing his responsibilities in the defense, the second-year pro is also impressed with one thing about his highly-touted rookie teammate in his position room.
"How smart he is. He catches on real fast," Jones said of Gonzalez. "That's a great thing whenever you come into a scheme like ours, but the main thing, like I said, I just tell him is any question that you have all for all the vets on the team, we love to help each other out."
As a Patriots fan, reading about how the defense has stood out through three practices after the offense's struggles a year ago might sound alarming. Yes, the defense could be one of the NFL's best, but you'd like to hear more positive reviews on the offensive side of the ball.
An honest assessment must provide proper context to what has objectively been an up-and-down few days for quarterback Mac Jones and company. First, even though it's a more experienced coaching staff, Bill O'Brien is installing a new offensive system, meaning there will be a learning curve. Second, the offense is operating in tight quarters inside the red zone, so most of the attempted passes are into contested windows. Plus, these are basic route concepts without the threat of the run, making the offense's options limited.
Until the offense has more room to operate, can run or pass, and builds chemistry together in a new playbook, the defense having the upper hand is not surprising. It's also worth saying that the overall operation is night and day compared to last summer; players are on the same page with the play calls, lining up correctly, and practice has a good pace to it without many stoppages to correct mistakes or send an offensive player on a lap for a procedural penalty.
In the interest of sorting through what's real and what's not, the concern here is that New England's big-bodied targets weren't winning jump-ball opportunities with much consistency. Pats tight end Hunter Henry opened 7-on-7 drills with a high-point grab up the seam over safety Adrian Phillips, but the rest of practice had its fair share of contested passes fall incomplete.
The Patriots have several bigger receivers who theoretically should win those 50-50 balls. For example, DeVante Parker couldn't haul in a jump ball over 5-foot-9 Jonathan Jones, while Mike Gesicki lost at the catch point to Joshuah Bledsoe later in practice. To be an effective offense, the contested-catch guys need to win those matchups, and speedy wideout Tyquan Thornton hasn't popped yet with the team working in the red zone.
Besides newcomer JuJu Smith-Schuster, who flashed his abilities in Thursday's session, this group doesn't have many receivers who can create separation against good coverage. In fact, the lack of separation from the top wideouts has rookie Demario Douglas emerging because he has the quick-twitch movements to get open underneath the defense.
Unless everything is due to the limited conditions they're working in inside the red zone, receiver separation was a concern heading into camp, and the onus continues to be on offensive coordinator Bill O'Brien to scheme open receivers, with the Pats incorporating play-action and RPO elements as ways to create space for receivers on early downs, for example.
The Patriots defense has the makings of a top-ranked unit on paper, and early returns from three days at Pats camp suggest they'll be just that in 2023. Offensively, it's a work in progress.