For the most part during the first week of camp the offense has taken its lumps whenever going against the defense during practice. On Tuesday, the group seemed determined to fight back.
While the defense still had the upper hand overall, the offense rebounded and turned in more positive plays as the workout progressed. By the time it ended, the guys in white jerseys were doing a lot of celebrating, particularly after a goal line drill to close things out.
Always one of the more enjoyable aspects of camp, the goal line work jacks up the intensity level on both sides. Rex Burkhead lined up behind Jakob Johnson on the first snap and took a handoff off left guard and easily made his way into the end zone.
On the next play with a similar look, Burkhead took off toward the right side, and although he was forced to work a little harder, he once again found paydirt. On both plays there was a raucous celebration by the entire offense in the end zone, with Burkhead leaping into the arms of his linemen who made his success possible.
The final two plays of the drill included Cam Newton, who executed a perfect play action before finding a wide-open Devin Asiasi in the end zone. The defense completely sold out to stop the run on the rep and was completely fooled, and that seemed to irk the entire unit.
Check out photos of the Patriots during training camp at Gillette Stadium on Tuesday, Aug. 18, 2020.
That was evident on the following snap when Damien Harris tried to fight his way into the end zone off the left side, only to be swallowed up by a combination of Darius Kilgo, Brandon Copeland and Nick Thurman. The final play had no chance as it appeared as if the defense had enough of the celebrating and put an end to it.
One element of the offense that has been difficult to ignore is fullback, where Johnson has been a mainstay each day. After James Develin retired and free agent addition Dan Vitale opted out, Johnson was the last man standing at the position.
But if he remains on the roster it won't be by default. Johnson has impressed with his athleticism and power. He helped open the holes on Burkhead's TD runs and has shown to be a capable receiver in drills as well. He's been a fixture on the kick return unit as one of the deep blockers in front of the returners as well. Johnson also has shown a strong work ethic, often remaining on the field working by himself on a blocking sled practicing his punch.
He was one of a half dozen Patriots to speak after practice via video conference and talked about how playing professionally in his native Germany helped his evolution.
"I would say, it just gave me a taste of the real world," said Johnson, who was limited to four games last season after a shoulder injury landed him on IR. "You know, when you're in college, everything is handled for you. You got all these tutors and everybody babying you and making sure that you're feeling OK. And it just gave me a taste of the real world, being by myself, living alone and then being able to come back and play football. It was just a great opportunity. I think more than anything it gave me a taste of humbleness being back home."
Beyond the offense's spirited response, here are some observations from Tuesday's practice.
*In fairness most of the work thus far hasn't been at the highest intensity level and Bill Belichick's focus appeared to be more on instruction as camp opened. But more often than not the defense has dictated most of the action, and that was the case over the first half of Tuesday's practice. The running game was completely shut down during 11-on-11 work in the middle of the field as Harris, Burkhead and J.J. Taylor found little running room. Chase Winovich did a nice job setting the edge on one rep while Kyle Dugger aggressively filled a gap on another.
*The passing game was equally slow getting started. Jarrett Stidham threw three interceptions with Michael Jackson, Stephon Gilmore and Dugger all came up with errant tosses. Much will likely be made of the three picks, but the setting likely had something to do with the results. Stidham seemed willing to force the ball into coverage in order to make plays without regard for the turnovers, and that's something quarterbacks often do in practice. Also, Stidham responded by throwing the best ball of the day on a deep out to Damiere Byrd. Byrd ran a great route and beat Jason McCourty, but the throw had to be precise on the left sideline and it was. Stidham also throw a dime to Mohamed Sanu deep over the wideout's outside shoulder that was perfect. Obviously it bears watching moving forward but practice picks are not the end of the world, and they didn't seem to deter Stidham.
*Cam Newton and Brian Hoyer fared better, particularly Hoyer, who connected with Gunner Olszewski on a deep ball and later Devin Ross down the left sideline. The Olszewski completion hung in the air for a bit and may have been defended but the shifty wideout was well behind cornerback Myles Bryant and was able to wait to make the catch. Newton looks more comfortable by the day and seemed to have more throws in rhythm Tuesday than we've previously seen. Still lots of reps for all three.
*Dugger has the look of a dynamic return man with uncommon size for the role. He took a kick back on Tuesday, and after shooting through the lane created by his blockers, Dugger took off as special teams coordinator Cam Achord enthusiastically exhorted him the rest of the way.
*Devin Ross has started to show up more consistently both in 7-on-7s and 11-on-11s. The wideout spent last season on the Patriots practice squad and the 5-9, 182-pounder has shown great speed and ability to get open in the early going. He's been open several times on deep balls and has made the most of some of his opportunities.
*During the team portion of practice quarterbacks coach Jedd Fisch wore headsets on the sideline and appeared to be calling plays. Offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels generally handles those duties but that was not the case on Tuesday.
*Jake Bailey worked on his plus-50 punting and turned in some beauties. Of his seven attempts, only one resulted in a touchback. The other six included three fair catches inside the 10, one that went out of bounds at the 8 and a pair that were downed at the 1. The first was downed by D'Angelo Ross and the other featured great teamwork by Justin Bethel, who deflected the ball back so Matthew Slater could corral it.
*Jakobi Meyers, Sanu, Harris, N'Keal Harry and Devin McCourty all joined Johnson on video calls with the media after practice.