FOXBORO — As Baker Mayfield dropped back in the pocket, Deatrich Wise came sprinting off the edge of the defensive line. With the 6-foot-5, 275-pound defensive lineman bearing down on him, the Carolina Panthers starting quarterback got the pass off just in time.
Unlike in a real game, the Patriots defensive lineman patted Mayfield on the back before talking to the quarterback.
“Playful trash talk,” Wise explained. “That’s kind of what I did. I walked past him and told him that I was here.”
The Patriots had plenty to smile about on Tuesday. Leading into the team’s first joint practice of 2022, the talk had been about Mac Jones, the offense’s struggles and who will be calling the offensive plays. By the end of this practice, it was clear that some of Jones and his offense’s struggles this summer were simply due to the Patriots’ defense being really, really talented.
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It’s one thing to dominate an offense that’s working out the wrinkles with a new play-caller and new play-calls. It’s another to go out and shut down a different NFL team. At this point, it looks like the Patriots defense is heading into the 2022 NFL season with a clear message:
It’s for real.
“On our field, I know we were dominating the whole time,” Wise said after practice. “We did a great job of just applying pressure and keeping it on. Our DBs were very active in the backfield and our D-line was very active up front. Not letting a lot of yards get around us or through us. So we did an awesome job just coming together as one today. And that’s awesome.”
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It didn’t take long to hear the hooting and hollering.
The Panthers offensive players were celebrating a lot to start practice on Tuesday. That’s part of what led to the first of two fights between the Carolina defense and Patriots offense. When the dust settled, Pats receivers Kristian Wilkerson and Kendrick Bourne were kicked out of practice along with Panthers safety Kenny Robinson.
By the end of practice, however, the loudest noise was coming from the Patriots defense.
Mayfield and his backup Sam Darnold had nowhere to go on many of their plays. Matthew Judon and Wise led the defense with two sacks a piece. Christian Barmore, Daniel Ekuale, Justin Bethel and Kyle Dugger finished with a sack each.
“We’re not really into the rah-rah stuff and stuff like that. It looks good in front of the fans but we’re just out here to practice,” said safety Adrian Phillips. “I can’t speak for what they were doing on their side, but we’re all about business on our side. I can’t tell you about all the screaming, but when we turn on the film, we’re going to see what the film looks like. Then we’ll know who won the day.”
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With each play, the Patriots sideline erupted.
In full-team drills, Mayfield completed 54% of his passes against the Patriots, going 13 of 24. Darnold completed just 50%, going 9 of 18 with an interception. Cornerback Shaun Wade intercepted Darnold. Veteran cornerback Jalen Mills finished with three pass breakups. On one play, he waved his finger like Dikembe Mutombo in front of the Panthers sideline.
As the Panthers faltered during the 2-minute drill, Patriots defensive players were heard screaming in delight.
“It feels great. That’s what it’s going to be going into the game. … You need your guys on the sideline to amp you up a little bit,” said Phillips. “We put it on each other. We want to make sure everyone comes out there with the juice. None of that fake juice. Just the confidence. When you evoke confidence and have real confidence in the stuff you’re doing, the juice comes with it. It’s good to see that out there today.”
Patriots defense has strength in numbers
Part of the Patriots defensive strength lies in the fact that it’s hard to decipher. The unit plays a blend of man coverage and zone coverage. The defensive line has looked dominant against the Patriots offense and on Tuesday, that was the case against Carolina. In the secondary, Mills has looked like he’s prepared to fill the shoes of JC Jackson, who left for the Los Angeles Chargers.
Considering the defense lost Jackson, Kyle Van Noy, Dont’a Hightower and Jamie Collins, it is fair to wonder how good it will be this season, especially after last year ended with Buffalo quarterback Josh Allen dominating the Patriots in the wild-card round .
Phillips said that Mills brings the same energy every day in practice with the same vocal message — play championship defense.
“He wants to be able to take that next step and be that guy. He carries himself like that,” said Phillips. “He came in last year and played well for us. Now, we move on from JC Now, it’s Jalen. He’s stepping into the role and doing his thing. He’s confident and he’s locked in every single day. He’s never taken a day off. Every time we get out here, he says, ‘championship defense. Championship mindset.’ He’s locked in. … At this time, he wants to be the guy they call on.”
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Mills has been great this summer. Jonathan Jones has been moved to outside cornerback. That allows Bill Belichick to put Myles Bryant and/or Marcus Jones in the slot. That combination creates more speed at cornerback. At safety, the Patriots have four above-average safeties in Devin McCourty, Phillips, Kyle Dugger and Jabrill Peppers. Then you factor in Judon, Christian Barmore, Davon Godchaux, Lawrence Guy and linebackers like Mack Wilson and Ja’Whaun Bentley.
There are so many pieces and it allows Belichick and his coaching staff to show off a different blend of defensive alignments in each game. On Tuesday, Panthers coach Matt Rhule estimated they saw seven different defensive sets in that one practice.
“This is invaluable — the amount of things we saw today. We saw about seven different defenses,” said Rhule. “That’s what they do. They’re so good at it.”