Patriots Joint Practice Observations: Offense Shows Promise Vs. Panthers

Plus: A "dominant" day for New England's defense

by

August 16

FOXBORO, Mass. — The fields behind Gillette Stadium got a whole lot more crowded Tuesday as the Carolina Panthers arrived for their first of two joint practices with the New England Patriots.

Here’s what we observed during that high-intensity session:

ATTIRE
Full pads.

ATTENDANCE
Did not participate
CB Malcolm Butler
CB Joejuan Williams
OL Bill Murray
OL Andrew Stueber
OT Justin Herron
OT Isaiah Wynn

Williams reportedly has a shoulder injury that will sideline him for the season. Head coach Bill Belichick described Wynn as “day to day.” Wynn and Herron both ran through conditioning drills on a side rehab field, wearing workout clothes.

The reason for Butler’s absence remains unclear. The veteran cornerback hasn’t seen the field since playing in last Thursday’s preseason opener against the New York Giants.

INJURY REPORT
Tight end Hunter Henry and offensive lineman Yasir Durant both exited toward the locker room before the end of practice.

Henry did not take part in any competitive team drills, resulting in an uptick of first-team reps for Devin Asiasi and, to a lesser extent, Matt Sokol.

OFFENSE UPDATE
After watching the Patriots’ offense stumble its way through the first three weeks of training camp, the No. 1 question entering these joint practices was how that Mac Jones-led group would look against Carolina’s talented defense.

The answer after Day 1: pretty good. Certainly much better than what we’d seen previously.

Jones went 21-for-30 with an interception in 11-on-11 drills and 7-for-9 in 7-on-7s, relying mostly on quick-game passing and checkdowns early in practice before beginning to attack more downfield as the morning progressed. His protection wasn’t perfect — rookie left guard Cole Strange allowed a would-be sack to Matt Ioannidis on one rep, and Jones was forced into a scramble one play later — but Jones didn’t face the barrage of free rushers he saw in some earlier practices.

Again: not great, but better.

Jones’ interception came on a desperation pass to Jonnu Smith on the final rep of a two-minute drills. Told he had five seconds remaining on the clock and needed a touchdown, he faced pressure and heaved a pass into triple coverage that was picked off by linebacker Frankie Luvu. Jones had three other passes that were broken up — including one that was deflected into the air at the second level — and one that was caught out of bounds. Receivers Nelson Agholor and DeVante Parker drew pass interference and defensive holding penalties.

We’ll see if the Patriots work their run game — which has struggled to adjust to the team’s outside-zone concepts — more in Wednesday’s joint practice. Of the 38 reps Jones’ unit took during 11-on-11s, just five were run plays, including two handoffs to Smith. Damien Harris carried twice — one of which was called back for offensive holding — and Rhamondre Stevenson carried once.

PLAYER OF THE DAY
Jalen Mills.

This was, in the accurate words of defensive end Deatrich Wise, a “dominant” day for the Patriots’ defense, and Mills was excellent throughout.

The veteran cornerback won three of his four reps in 1-on-1 drills, logging pass breakups against Robbie Anderson and Ra’Shaun Henry and blanketing Anderson on another incompletion. Later, Mills broke up a deep ball to Anderson and swatted down a pass to D.J. Moore at the goal line on one of the final reps of practice.

Anderson and Moore both are projected Panthers starters with 1,000-yard seasons on their records.

Though the Patriots, for the first time in a decade, don’t have a Pro Bowl-caliber No. 1 cornerback on their roster, Mills looks like the clear top dog in that position group. This has been a very strong summer for the green-haried cover man.

ASSORTED NOTES
— The intensity always ratchets up in joint practice settings, and this one featured fights and ejections galore.

Patriots players Kendrick Bourne, Kristian Wilkerson and James Ferentz and Panthers players Kenny Robinson and Phil Hoskins all were tossed out of practice after two separate brawls broke out during one 11-on-11 drill between New England’s offense and Carolina’s defense.

The first came after a completion from Jones to Willkerson, who took exception to aggressive after-the-whistle play by Panthers defensive backs. Multiple reports also indicate a Carolina assistant coach pushed Wilkerson on the sideline. Bourne joined the fracas after it began and could be seen throwing punches.

Members of the Patriots’ defense and Panthers’ offense ran over from the adjoining practice field before coaches eventually separated the teams.

A second scuffle involving multiple linemen broke out shortly thereafter but was quickly quelled with no ejections. Then, Ferentz and Hoskins were at the center of a third brawl, resulting in an early shower for both.

After the Ferentz-Hoskins fracas, head coaches Bill Belichick and Matt Rhule gathered their teams for lengthy huddles, and the post-play fisticuffs ceased.

— No players would reveal the exact cause of any scrap, but Carolina’s defensive intensity likely was a contributing factor. Panthers defenders frequently punched at the ball after Patriots receptions and loudly celebrated when they succeeded in jarring it loose.

In one 7-on-7 period, Smith and Asiasi both fumbled, Jakobi Meyers had the ball knocked out of his hands as he stepped out of bounds, and a Panthers linebacker drilled Sokol to force an incompletion.

— Asiasi, whose hands have looked shaky of late, caught an earful from position coach Nick Caley after his ball-security slip-up.

— Maybe we haven’t been giving the Patriots’ defense enough credit for how disjointed the offense has looked this summer.

Save for a few sporadic breakdowns — like one play that had Ja’Whaun Bentley matched up against Christian McCaffrey in coverage — New England put the clamps on Baker Mayfield, Sam Darnold and company, overwhelming Carolina’s offensive line to register repeated run stuffs and a slew of quarterback pressures.

Wise, Matthew Judon, Anfernee Jennings, Christian Barmore and Davon Godchaux all were disruptive up front. The Patriots also dialed up several defensive back blitzes, with one resulting in a rare “sack” for special teams-focused cornerback Justin Bethel.

In the secondary, Jonathan Jones allowed a long touchdown to Moore but was in coverage on three incompletions during a late two-minute drill. Rookie Marcus Jones continued his strong camp with a pass breakup in 1-on-1s and another in 7s.

Shaun Wade had a breakup in 7s and a breakup and an interception in two-minute, with both of those coming in the red zone. He also was flagged for defensive pass interference in the end zone, prompting Mills to passionately argue with a member of the officiating crew that had been brought in for the week.

Undrafted D-lineman LaBryan Ray, who’s been a highlight-a-day player this summer, had the pass deflection that led to Wade’s pick.

— There’s still time for this to change, but Mills and Jonathan Jones appear all but locked in as the Patriots’ two starting outside cornerbacks. There seems to be a clear gap developing between them and the likes of Terrance Mitchell, Butler and Jack Jones.

The slot position is less settled, with Marcus Jones taking first reps in some practices — and, notably, not playing in last week’s preseason opener — and Myles Bryant doing so in others. On both days this week, Bryant has repped first in that role, with Jones seeing action with Mills and Jonathan Jones in subsequent periods.

— This might have been the best practice yet for Parker.

The veteran wideout caught five of his seven targets from Jones in 11-on-11s, including a physical box-out against cornerback CJ Henderson and a contested catch down the left sideline that beat double coverage.

After a quiet stretch in the second week of camp, Parker again is showing how valuable he can be for this Patriots receiving corps, which did not feature any players who could consistently make catches in traffic or win in the red zone last season.

— As the Patriots’ top offense navigated a two-minute drill near the end of practice, Ty Montgomery played the James White role.

Belichick all but confirmed before practice that Montgomery, a running back/wide receiver/special teams hybrid, will have a roster spot this season, and he’s the leading candidate to step in for the retired White as New England’s third-down back.

— Reception totals from Jones in 11-on-11 drills:

DeVante Parker: five on seven targets
Jakobi Meyers: four on six targets
Ty Montgomery: three on three targets
Tyquan Thornton: one on three targets
Kristian Wilkerson: two on two targets
Rhamondre Stevenson: two on two targets
Nelson Agholor: one on two targets
Jonnu Smith: one on two targets
Kendrick Bourne: one on one target
Matt Sokol: one on one target

Stevenson (two), Smith (two), Agholor, Bourne and Asiasi caught passes from Jones in 7-on-7s.

— We wondered whether last year’s dustup between Mac Jones and Burns would spill over into practice this week, but there weren’t any contentious interactions between the Patriots quarterback and Panthers pass rusher.

In fact, after Burns bowled over right guard Mike Onwenu on the same play that sparked the aforementioned Wilkerson fight, Jones smiled and had what appeared to be a few friendly words for the defender.

— Judon, Burns and Panthers defensive end Yetur Gross-Matos talked on the field for more than 20 minutes after practice concluded.

— The list of special guests at Tuesday’s practice included former Patriots safeties Patrick Chung and Nate Ebner.

Chung wore bright red gloves and helped coach defensive back drills.

Former Las Vegas Raiders general manager Mike Mayock also was in attendance. The Patriots will practice against Mayock’s old team next week.

UP NEXT
The Patriots and Panthers will practice together again Wednesday, then face off in a preseason game Friday night at Gillette Stadium.

NESN.com’s coverage of New England Patriots preseason is presented by Cross Insurance, protecting your team since 1954.

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