The first day of joint practices between the Patriots and Panthers didn't disappoint in a lengthy two-and-a-half-hour session on Tuesday morning.
New England and Carolina went toe-to-toe in what felt like the first truly competitive practice of the summer, which was a great litmus test for where the Patriots are on both sides of the ball.
Although quarterback Mac Jones and the passing offense took a step forward, Bill Belichick's defense stole the show with a highly-impactful day in the trenches.
In a run-heavy opening 11-on-11 period, the Panthers and star running back Christian McCaffrey couldn't get anything going. McCaffrey and backup Chubba Hubbard had very little room to run thanks to the Patriots defensive line holding its ground. The sequence to start practice: Davon Godchaux stuff, Matt Judon and Lawrence Guy combine for a stop, Anfernee Jennings registers a stuff, and a Judon tackle for loss on an outside zone run.
Later on, Godchaux chased down Hubbard from behind for another tackle for loss with Judon setting the edge to the play-side, and then New England's pass rush went to work.
"We were dominating the whole time," Patriots defensive end Deatrich Wise told reporters after practice. "They completed a few passes on us. But we were in Baker's [Mayfield] face all day."
Wise's practice assessment was accurate as he registered at least three quarterback pressures in practice, including a "sack" of Mayfield where he beat starting right tackle Taylor Moton and put his arm around the Panthers quarterback after the play as if to say, "got ya!".
By our count, we had the Patriots with nine quarterback pressures during 11-on-11 periods. Judon, Wise, safety Jabrill Peppers, and linebacker Jahlani Tavai would've likely sacked Carolina's quarterbacks if they were allowed to tackle QBs in practice.
At times, there were open receivers downfield, which is noteworthy context that we'll need to monitor as joint practices continue, but the pressure altered almost every throw it seemed.
With practice ending in a lengthy back-and-forth team period, almost like a game, the Patriots began ramping up the pressure by involving the second and third levels of the defense in their blitz packages. On more than one occasion, there were free runners to the quarterback, but those blitz schemes also gave the Pats defensive front one-on-one opportunities.
"It's cool seeing the smaller guys from the back getting a sack. We always hype them up and let them know that we appreciate their sack just as much as they appreciate our sacks," Wise told Patriots.com. "At the same time, they pull our guys off us, allowing us to have one-on-one action or get scot-free to the quarterback."
After struggling along the offensive line a year ago, the Panthers selected rookie left tackle Ikem Ekwonu with the sixth overall pick in the 2022 NFL Draft. Carolina also signed starting guard Austin Corbett from the Super Bowl-champion Rams and brought in more competition for the other spots to look for upgrades. Moton is the lone returning starter whose job isn't up for grabs.
However, Tuesday's practice looked like last season's Week 9 matchup when the Patriots defense held the Panthers to 3.4 yards per rush and intercepted Darnold three times in a 24-6 win. New England's defense controlled the line of scrimmage in that victory, and did so again, outside of two notable McCaffrey and Hubbard big-gainers.
Although the Panthers quarterback and offensive line situation is a work in progress, the Pats defense continued to have the upper hand over the offense lined up across from them. It's still too early to hype the defense up as a shutdown unit, but they continue to practice at a high level, especially along the defensive front, by making plays in the backfield.
After a very competitive and chippy joint practice session, here are seven observations from the matchups in the trenches between the Patriots and Panthers on Tuesday:
1. With Isaiah Wynn and Justin Herron sidelined, Yodny Cajuste Reps at Right Tackle
Before practice, Patriots head coach Bill Belichick described starting right tackle Isaiah Wynn's status as "day-to-day" with an undisclosed injury. Wynn has now sat out four consecutive practices, while projected top swing tackle Justin Herron missed his second-straight session due to an injury that occurred during New England's preseason opener against the Giants last Thursday night.
With the Pats down two offensive tackles, their depth was tested, leading to Arlington Hambright kicking outside to left tackle and Will Sherman filling in at right tackle with the second unit. On the top unit, 2019 third-round pick Yodny Cajuste got another opportunity on the right side.
Cajuste had a strong showing in his initial one-on-one repetitions, including a decisive win over Panthers starting defensive end Yetur Gross-Matos. However, he lost his final two reps and continues to seesaw at times in his first extended NFL action due to a myriad of injuries in his first three seasons. Cajuste's footwork, athleticism, and playing strength are NFL caliber. But he'll need to be more consistent with his technique to earn a starting role. At the very least, he's playing his way into the conversation to be the team's top backup at offensive tackle.
2. Patriots Passing Offense Has Its Best Practice of the Summer in Full Pads
Without the benefit of film review, it's impossible to know for sure how much of a role the offensive line had in New England's success through the air. With that said, Mac Jones looked as in-rhythm throwing downfield as we've seen him in a padded practice this summer. Jones opened the session with three completions off play-action to Jakobi Meyers (crosser), Tyquan Thornton (in-cut), and a high-point fade down the right sideline to DeVante Parker. Mac also hit Meyers again on a corner route, Parker again in-stride on a slant and a second contested sideline catch, and found Ty Montgomery down the right sideline during a two-minute drill. Carolina will hopefully turn up the blitz pressure to test the Pats protections more on Wednesday, but the offensive line didn't hold Mac Jones back from connecting with his receivers downfield. The only noticeably impactful pass-rusher for the Panthers in team drills was Pro Bowler Brian Burns.
3. Patriots Running Game Still Trying to Find Its Groove
The biggest challenge when evaluating the running game during training camp practices is that there's very seldom a "finishing" aspect to the play. Defenders aren't tackling ball carriers to the ground, and the battle in the trenches is either not at full speed or ends quickly, so it's challenging to assess how big of a gain a running play would've been. Still, it appeared that the Panthers defense had New England's running game bottled up for most of the practice, which is becoming a theme for the Pats offense this summer. Is it possible that running lanes are forming, but the "finish" of the play makes it tough to see from our view in the stands? Yes. But from what we've gleaned, there isn't much room between the tackles for Damien Harris and company. Ty Montgomery did break a nice run off the right edge at one point.
4. Patriots Rookie LG Cole Strange Has Up-and-Down Practice
Again, with the starting offense having a productive day through the air, Strange deserves credit for doing his 1/11th to keep Mac clean in the pocket. Plus, he held off Panthers defensive tackle Derrick Brown in his first one-on-one rep, which was notable since Brown is a mountain of a man going up against the smaller Strange. However, Strange struggled in the latter part of the one-on-ones and was beaten by Brown and Daviyon Nixon. Overall, Strange is coming along at an expected pace for a rookie. But you still worry about how he'll handle power rushers on the interior.
5. Patriots DT Christian Barmore Keeps Arrow Pointing Upward
During one-on-one's early in practice, Barmore put an absolutely filthy move on projected starting center Bradley Bozeman. Using a two-hand swipe move, Barmore went around Bozeman instantly. The second-year breakout candidate also had a nice run stop during team periods and was in the mix while the Pats were getting after Mayfield. However, he is not always in New England's base early-down packages, instead working with the sub-package group while occasionally mixing in as a base defensive end. Barmore continues to cause problems for opposing offensive lines, but he's still working towards a three-down role.
6. Pass-Rushers Shine in Two-on-Two Pass Rush Drills
Both the Patriots and Panthers offensive line had issues passing off two-man stunt schemes during a two-on-two drill. These drills stress communication and continuity, with blockers passing off twisting rushers to stay in between them and the quarterback. Although the Pats O-Line had a rough go of it almost across the board, it was nice to see third-year edge rushers Anfernee Jennings and Josh Uche working in tandem on two wins against the Panthers offensive line. Jennings had another strong practice overall.
7. Patriots Undrafted Rookie LaBryan Ray Continues to Make Roster Push
Lastly, undrafted rookie LaBryan Ray continues to make his case for a 53-man roster spot by logging another pressure and deflecting a pass at the line of scrimmage that cornerback Shaun Wade eventually intercepted. Ray has the power and frame to hold up as a point-of-attack run defender, while his pass-rush ability has flashed in camp. Ray could play his way onto the roster with a strong finish in joint practices over the next week-plus.