The Patriots held another practice in full pads on Monday afternoon at Gillette Stadium, which felt similar to other sessions this summer.
Once again, New England's defense overwhelmed the offense during 11-on-11 team periods, leading to an offense-only huddle on the field after practice led by veteran center David Andrews. The pressure on Mac Jones in the first few weeks of camp is making the second-year quarterback noticeably uncomfortable, and a new-look running game isn't offering much help.
The doom and gloom angle about the offense is popular right now, but it's worth mentioning that the Patriots defense is contributing to the struggles and deserves credit.
Although we'll need to see it against another opponent, the Patriots may have a defensive unit that is better than some anticipated and could make life difficult on other offenses just like it has its own.
Leading the way in Monday's session was Pro Bowler Matthew Judon, who returned without any limitations after missing two practices for an undisclosed reason. Judon was in the middle of multiple negative plays, including a "sack" of Mac Jones where he beat right tackle Justin Herron around the corner (Herron was playing in place of a limited Isaiah Wynn).
Judon's presence on the edge of the defense for the Patriots is even more critical now that New England is transitioning away from veterans Kyle Van Noy, Dont'a Hightower, and Jamie Collins. Last season, the three former Pats linebackers logged a combined 744 snaps on the line of scrimmage, with Van Noy typically playing opposite Judon in the Pats' 3-4 defensive scheme.
With the holes created by veteran departures this offseason, Judon is taking on a mentorship role with third-year edge rushers Josh Uche and Anfernee Jennings. Knowing the day would come when Hightower, Van Noy, and Collins would no longer play for the Patriots, Bill Belichick selected Uche (second round) and Jennings (third round) on day two of the 2020 NFL Draft.
Uche had flashes as a pass rusher during the regular season but hasn't consistently held up as a run defender. As for Jennings, he has dealt with injuries both past and present that contributed to long stints of inactivity.
"The big thing with Anfernee [Jennings] is he's out there. So he's been out there every day. He's working. Of course, if you're working, you're improving. It's good to have him out there, and he's made progress every day," Patriots head coach Bill Belichick said last week of the Alabama product.
Now healthy and with a big opportunity in front of them, Judon's locker is positioned right next to Uche and Jennings's in the Patriots locker room so that the younger Pats can pick the brain of the Pro Bowler.
"[Anfernee Jennings and Josh Uche] sit right not me in the locker [room], so when we are watching film between meetings or right before practice or after practice, we are just talking about stuff we see. That makes us all better," Judon told Patriots.com on Monday.
"We all see the game differently. We might get the same block, or we might get different stuff because we are different rushers. We see stuff just a little bit differently, and I've played a little bit more football than those guys, so I can say if you get this, then do this."
"I think they are taking that, especially with what the coaches are teaching them, and transitioning it out here [on the practice field]," Judon continued.
In the first ten training camp practices, Uche's speed and bend to turn a tight corner are giving New England's offensive tackles problems in one-on-one drills. In those same drills, we saw Jennings execute a perfect spin move to get around Herron in Monday's practice.
"Judon's a great mentor. That's probably one of the best resources I have in terms of football knowledge. Just also a great person and great personality in terms of uplifting guys. It's just great. I get to look to my left and Anfernee [Jennings] and [Matthew] Judon are right there, and we are just talking ball," Uche told reporters after Monday's practice.
Although the one-on-one drills are flashy, Jennings has also stood out with a sturdy edge-setting presence during team periods and earned the nod with the Pats starting defense in Friday night's in-stadium scrimmage with Judon sitting out the practice.
Like most defensive coaches, Patriots head coach Bill Belichick emphasizes setting the edge against the run. From this perspective, Jennings's ability to set a sturdy edge could earn him opportunities to play on early downs, while Uche continues in a pass-rush specialist role on obvious passing downs.
Without the benefit of film review, pinpointing the exact issues plaguing the Patriots offensive line in training camp is difficult. But to steal from an old Dante Scarnecchia rule of thumb for offensive line play, the starting unit isn't seeing the game through the same set of eyes.
The Scarnnechia wisdom is hanging on the wall in New England's offensive line room and rang true in one practice sequence where the defense appeared to turn up the pressure.
New England sent two blitzes at quarterback Mac Jones, one from rookie Marcus Jones in the slot, and another appeared to be a zero blitz. First, the Pats rookie corner came in unblocked to "sack" Jones. Then, Mac tried to get the ball out quickly to DeVante Parker against all-out pressure, and the pass was nearly intercepted as Malcolm Butler undercut the route.
With frustration beginning to boil over for the Patriots offense, the number of plays where the quarterback has very little time to make a decision are adding up, and that's impacting other plays from clean pockets for Mac Jones, who doesn't look like himself out there.
As the Patriots continue to install their playbook on both sides of the ball, we saw more familiar schemes from Jones and company in Monday's practice. Although the results were still up-and-down, the rhythm was improved when the Pats spread the field and added a little bit of tempo to their offense with Jones in the shotgun.
It was far from perfect up front in those sequences, but it felt like the quarterback had more of a chance to scan downfield than when New England goes under-center and runs the zone-style offensive scheme that they've drilled throughout the summer.
From this vantage point, the Patriots don't appear to be tweaking their shotgun passing game much from what we knew under former offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels. It's the under-center stuff, which has seen the running game and play-action passing have issues, giving them the most problems – that's not surprising given those are newer elements.
The good news for the Patriots is that their defense, aided by an influx of young players like Uche and Jennings, is flying around with confidence through ten practices.
If the Patriots defense takes a step forward this season with improved team speed, it could buy the offense time to work through the growing pains in the early stages of the regular season.