Another round of joint practices is in the books for the Patriots, and this time it didn’t go so smoothly. After digesting how they played during these joints, this was their toughest matchup.
The Raiders, who will undoubtedly be a rival for New England in their quest to return to the playoffs, showed that they’re a formidable team on both sides of the ball. Las Vegas dominated the Patriots for a significant period, and many weaknesses that did not show themselves during the Carolina or New York weeks came to light.
While this may seem alarming at first glance, multiple joint practice sessions have gone similarly over the years. Furthermore, playing a talented team gives the Patriots a lot to work on as they approach the regular season, something they do quite well. Here, I provide an overview of these lessons and how they will impact the 2022 season.
The Patriots’ Offensive Line Still Needs A Lot Of Work
While showing some moments of individual strength, the offensive line has struggled throughout training camp and these joint practices. They have not been making clean, solid blocks on a fundamental level and have struggled against some of the Panthers & Giants’ more competent defenders. So, facing a front seven led by Chandler Jones, Andrew Billings, and Maxx Crosby, the unit had some severe troubles.
Cole Strange has shown much promise in camp and was solid in his limited preseason action. However, going from mainly facing FCS-level defenses to NFL-level physicality and speed comes with some adjustment. Every time Cole is passed provides an opportunity to learn to deal with that speed. Given that he will likely be a week one starter, he will need to make this adjustment quickly.
While individually, Wynn, Onwenu, and Brown are doing well in their roles, they are struggling with communication as a line and keeping up with the changes in the offense as they try to move towards a Shanahan-style inside the zone.
This has resulted in Mac getting pressured during 11-on-11 drills and very few holes in the running game. Jones’ stats last year were many times better when he had a clean pocket, and even though he has a quick release, he still needs time. Furthermore, if the running game can’t get going for the Patriots, it will be difficult for them to present a balanced attack. The Patriots have the personnel, but they must work together and do their job. It was, however, encouraging to see a better performance on day two, where the trench battles were much more split.
Single Coverage Won’t Work Against The Best Wideouts In The League
Jalen Mills has settled into the CB1 role, held his own against Patriots wideouts in practice, and did well against Carolina, matching up against D.J Moore, an incredibly underrated receiver. Jonathan Jones is showing promise both in the slot and outside roles. Terrance Mitchell’s experience is proving useful, and the rookies are priming themselves to go wild with their speed and athleticism. However, the Patriots don’t have anything in the way of a proper shutdown corner.
As it is, the best wideouts in the NFL have gotten even faster, and even for the best corners in the league, covering them alone is a near-impossible task. Mills and Jonathan Jones found that out when trying to cover Davante Adams. So while this will be useful for the regular-season matchup with Adams and with a matchup with Tyreek Hill coming up in the regular season opener, the Patriots are going to have to be creative with how they cover these wideouts.
The challenging thing is that Hunter Renfrow and TE Darren Waller also accompany Adams as potent pass-catching threats. The same will be true of many teams the Patriots will face. If they’ve locked down Hill, there’s still Waddle. If they’ve locked down Thielen, there’s still Jefferson. The innovative way of carrying this out is to keep their experienced guys on the outside, in cover-three formations, and leave the speedy rookies to the slot. In addition, there will have to be coordination between corners in zone coverage and safeties to round out the secondary.
What exactly the formations are going to be like will not be known quite yet and avoiding any reveals (and evaluating the corners individually) was likely the reason for the single coverage in the first place, but this provided valuable information for how the Patriots gameplan against stellar wideouts.
Ball Distribution Is Mac & The Patriots’ Friend
Because of the offensive line and his second-year growing pains, Mac had a rough outing on the first day, at 7/17 passing and an interception. The next day, though, he was much better, leading the Patriots to a more successful set of 11-on-11 drills, culminating in a Hunter Henry touchdown. It has been clear that Mac has taken to his role with the Patriots as a leader. This leadership has been evident even as the offense has dealt with growing pains each week of joints has gone on.
Mac and the entire offense did their best when they distributed the ball. One way in which the Patriots improved from a roster perspective this offseason was adding more pass-catching threats. And Mac achieved his best chemistry with the offense when alternating between Parker, Agholor Bourne, Meyers, Henry, Smith, and even RBs Montgomery and Stevenson. Wide receivers, both deep and slot threats, tight ends, and running backs are all viable pass-catching threats for the Patriots, and making the best use of all of them will be the key to success this season.
MVP of Joint Practices?
One of the bright spots for New England during all the joint practices was the pass rush. Especially on day two in Las Vegas, but the group looked very formidable against both Carolina and New York. Surprisingly, rather than from the defensive ends (who were serviceable but not disruptive), the best moments of pass rush came from their linebackers.
Notably, Matt Judon and Josh Uche were extremely useful. While we expected outstanding performances from Judon after his success last season, 2020 pick Josh Uche is physical, agile, and fast but hadn’t quite met his potential. However, in camp, preseason, and now these practices, Uche has shown tremendous improvement and ability to disrupt the offensive backfield and get to the quarterback. Getting a pass rush from tackles, edge rushers, and linebackers in a quarterback-rich AFC will be crucial.
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