The New England Patriots and Carolina Panthers gathered on the fields behind Gillette Stadium on Tuesday for their first day of joint practices. The session was a spirited one, to say the least, so make sure to read Brian Hines’ practice recap.
For everything else that happened, let’s clean out the notebook.
Deatrich Wise Jr. is encouraged by the Patriots’ defensive performance. New England’s defense played some very good football against the Panthers on Tuesday. Whether it was the front-line applying pressure or shutting down the running game, or the defensive backfield putting the straps on a talented receiving corps led by D.J. Moore and Robbie Anderson.
Outside observation is one thing, but it appears the players themselves also felt good about their performance.
“Thought today was a good practice. We actually came together, did a lot of great things,” said defensive lineman Deatrich Wise Jr. after the session. “Have to watch film to see how we can improve and everything, but so far everything looked solid. ...
“On our field I know we were dominating the whole time. We did a great job of just applying pressure and keeping it on; our DBs were very active in the background, our D-line was active up front not allowing many yards, allowing them to get around us or through us. We did an awesome job just coming together as one today.”
The Panthers might not be world-beaters on offense despite being led by former first-round draft picks Baker Mayfield and Sam Darnold at quarterback, but it was encouraging to see New England step up its game on the defensive side of the ball.
Tyquan Thornton keeps catching passes, and the defense’s attention. One of the very first reps in 1-on-1 drills already shaw Patriots second-round draft pick Tyquan Thornton showcase his elite deep-field abilities. The youngster was able to get by defensive back (and ex-Baylor teammate) Kelon Barnes and laid out to catch a Mac Jones throw for a touchdown.
Later in team drills, Thornton added four more receptions — third on the team behind DeVante Parker (6) and Jakobi Meyers (5). It also became obvious that the Panthers were mindful of his elite speed: at one point, a defensive back played more cautious to possibly counter the vertical route which in turn gave the rookie an opening on a crosser.
DeVante Parker won’t let 50-50 balls happen. Speaking of wide receivers, DeVante Parker was the best of the bunch on Tuesday. The offseason trade acquisition did not just lead the team in team receptions, he also made a couple of competitive catches that fall under the category of “highlight-reel play”.
For Parker, however, this is par the course this summer and throughout his career.
“That’s something that I’ve always had since I was in high school. Just brought it to the NFL, continue doing that,” he said about his ability to out-box defenders. “If the ball’s in the area, it’s mine.”
Parker winning on 50-50 passes adds a new dynamic to the Patriots offense it has not had since the days of one Mr. Rob Gronkowski. For the wide receiver, it is all part of his mindset, though.
“Mine are like 80-to-20,” he said.
Tuesday’s performance proves him right.
Patriots players react to Tuesday’s feistiness. While there are several storylines to take away from Tuesday’s session, the one that received the most traction in the media appeared to be the chippiness throughout the day. On several occasions, players were exchanging choice words with one another; there also were two fights that resulted in a total of five players being sent off — including three Patriots.
For the team itself, that is something that simply cannot happen.
“It’s all competition, but we can’t fight in a game, can’t do it in practice,” said running back Damien Harris. “As competitive as it is, we have to play within the rules. We have to be disciplined and we have to go out there and do our jobs. Fighting is not a part of our jobs. We can’t do it in a game, we can’t do it in practice.”
Offensive tackle Yodny Cajuste echoed those remarks.
“It can’t happen on game days. That’s all that I can say about it,” Cajuste noted.
The first to go on the New England side of the ball were wide receivers Kristian Wilkerson and Kendrick Bourne. Later, center James Ferentz joined them in the locker room.
“That’s what happens when you’re competing and trying to get better. Things are going to happen but you just have to keep going to the next play,” said DeVante Parker after the session. “We just have to control our temper. ... Can’t be doing that. That’s really it.”
Rhamondre Stevenson’s pass-game contributions are improving. Second-year running back Rhamondre Stevenson already produced a solid rookie campaign as the number two early-down back behind Damien Harris. Now in Year 2, the former fourth-round draft pick appears to be in line for a sizable jump.
One area worth looking at in that regard is the passing game. It appears Stevenson might be part of the solution to help replace retired receiving back James White.
“Rhamondre’s done a really good job improving his pass game skills, starting with blitz pickup and protection,” said head coach Bill Belichick on Tuesday. “Route running, he’s got good hands — catching the ball’s never really been an issue. It’s setting up defenders, recognizing coverages, when to sit down, when to break, depending on what the rest of the pattern is, how to maximize the distribution on the pattern. ...
“But, he’s done a good job of gaining experience and all that is way better than it was last year. He understands it’s an important part of his game. It’s not just carrying the ball, it’s all things that go with the passing game. He’s done a great job.”
Bill Belichick takes an excursion into the world of running back play. In the middle of his answer about Rhamondre Stevenson’s contributions to the passing game, Belichick went on a tangent to speak about the nuances of such a role. It was the Patriots’ coach at his best, going into detail about why the receiving aspect of playing the position is different from other roles within his team’s offense.
“The back’s always kind of the last person in the pattern for flare control,” he said. “Whatever the rest of the players are running, the back is generally responsible for filling in, being in the right spot in the distribution so that the quarterback has an outlet or a piece of primary receiver — which can happen of a few plays — then obviously the skill of the back to execute the route, get open be one of the primary receivers on the pattern is critical.
“But most of the backs’ routes come off the protection, so there’s a protection element, there’s an actual blocking the guy part of it, recognition of it, and then being in the general or specific spot that he needs to be in to complement the rest of the pattern. That comes with a lot of experience, there’s so many different variables there, each play is a little bit different.
“A lot of times, the backs, even their release through or around the line of scrimmage depending on what’s going on with the rush, could be quite different from play to play even on the same basic route that the they’re supposed to be running. So, it’s much different than the receivers and the tight ends.”
Find someone who loves you as much as Bill Belichick loves talking about the intricacies of the game of football.
Matthew Judon spends some extra time with the Panthers’ pass rushers. While joint practices are all about competition, they also allow players to share their experience with others playing the same positions. That happened after Tuesday’s session when Patriots Pro Bowl linebacker Matthew Judon spent time with the Panthers’ Brian Burns and Yetur Gross-Matos to talk about the art of pass rushing for 15-plus minutes.
One of the cool, overlooked benefits of joint practices. Matthew Judon, Brian Burns and Yetur Gross-Matos trading pass-rush tips. This has been going on for at least 15 minutes. pic.twitter.com/TTStZWHkVA— Joe Person (@josephperson) August 16, 2022
Damien Harris wants to lead by example. Now entering his fourth year in the system, and with James White off to retirement, Damien Harris is the elder statesman in the Patriots’ running back room. As such, he is taking on an important role as a leader especially for the two rookies brought aboard earlier this year: Pierre Strong Jr. and Kevin Harris.
Thus far, the elder Harris appears to be quite happy with what he has seen out of the youngsters.
“Kevin and Pierre are both guys that come out here every single day ready to work, ready to improve, and ready to come out here and put there best on the field,” he said on Tuesday. “That’s all you can ask for anybody on this team. That’s our objective every single day. Incredibly hard workers, they do everything they can to come out here and be the best players that they can be. That’s no different from me.”
Harris went on to explain how he himself wants to set an example the young guys, and really the rest of the team, can follow.
“Going into my fourth year, I still approach the game that way,” he noted. “I’m hoping that if that’s how I approach the game, younger guys can pick that up and see that too and can have the same mentality of, ‘Every time I step onto the field I have to be at my best.’ If everybody does that, whether it’s offense, defense or special teams, everybody comes out with that mentality we’re going to have a really good team.”
Entering the 2022 season, Harris projects as New England’s lead running back yet again. Rhamondre Stevenson and free agency addition Ty Montgomery are the next men up alongside him, with Pierre Strong Jr. likely a depth option and Kevin Harris competing for the 53-man team or practice squad.
‘Cerebral player’ Jonathan Jones continues to be used as a starter on the outside. The first few training camp practices saw the Patriots roll with Jalen Mills and Terrance Mitchell as their outside cornerbacks. Since then, however, the lineup has changed: Jonathan Jones, who started the summer on the physically unable to perform list, has emerged as the top option opposite Mills.
That is a change for Jones, who spent the majority of his career in the slot leading up to 2022. Now, however, he is the frontrunner to take over a starting role on the perimeter.
“He’s doing great,” said safety Adrian Phillips about the 28-year-old. “He’s a cerebral player. He’s able to go inside and outside, and he’s one of those guys that came up the hard way — free agent, undrafted — so he just does whatever the team asks. He goes out there and does it to the best of his ability and more times than not he thrives at it.”
On Tuesday, Mills and Jones were the starting outside duo with Myles Bryant and rookie Marcus Jones sharing snaps in the slot.
With Mitchell and another rookie, Jack Jones, as CB3 and CB4 on the outside, respectively, the top of the Patriots’ cornerback depth chart appears to be settled. Shaun Wade will compete with Bryant for the final roster spot, while Malcolm Butler and Joejuan Williams were both sent to injured reserve on Tuesday. Neither was a lock to make the team, though.