New England Patriots

Center David Andrews and the Patriots confront the Carolina Panthers this week in joint practices and Friday’s preseason game. (Photo by Jim Dedmon/USA TODAY Sports)

  • Long a proponent of joint practices, Bill Belichick has often explained over his 23 years as Patriots head coach the mutual benefits such head-to-head workouts yield for his team and its preseason opponent.

    On Monday morning, prior to a relatively light practice in shorts and shells, Belichick was at it again, looking forward to a far more intense two days hosting the Carolina Panthers ahead of their game on Friday.

    “There’s so many things,” he said, starting with individual matchups and varying schemes. “We’ll see some different x’s and o’s, but also maybe techniques on the way guys pass-rush or route-running or things like that.

    “And, I would say, less predictability of practice. We kind of know what’s on the other side of the ball and what we can and can’t do. Some things we aren’t going to see from the opposite side of the ball. With a new team, everything’s kind of new, so it keeps you on your toes and forces more communication and more awareness, and we need that.”

    Elements of the unknown necessitate adjustments, as Belichick relayed during the Pats’ 2019 joint practices at Detroit.

    “It gives us a great opportunity to start to begin the process of seeing an opponent, recognizing the adjustments we need to make, making those adjustments quickly both as a coaching staff and as players and on each unit,” he said.

    No Patriots’ unit will be more closely watched this week than New England’s offensive line. Already trying to overcome well-chronicled struggles this training camp, it must hold up to Carolina’s talented defensive front.

    Individually, the Pats will be challenged trying to block the likes of end Brian Burns and tackle Derrick Brown, who missed time recently but returned to practice on Monday. Collectively, they’ll be tested trying to communicate and counter Panthers’ pass-rushing ‘games’ and ‘stunts.’

    Perhaps repeatedly, given the coaches’ abilities to script situations. Such as predictable passing downs. One after another, practice rep after practice rep.

    “I think we ran four third-down plays in a row, and that’s just all games and stunts,” center David Andrews recalled, when asked to draw from past experiences in joint practices and compare them to a typical exhibition game. “I don’t remember the last time we ran four in a row in a game. It just depends, right. It depends on what the situation is.

    “You might create just second and third downs. So that’s practice, sometimes you don’t get in those slows of the games, sometimes you will have those move-the-field periods where you are going first, second, third down, first, second, third down, kind of progressing down the field. But other times, like I said, you’re working on points of emphasis.”

    The power of manipulation can make a Tuesday or Wednesday head-to-head practice more valuable situationally than a Friday night under the lights. Want to work extra on two-minute offense and defense? Need to ensure your players get a taste of an end-of-half ‘Hail Mary?’

    Belichick and counterpart Matt Rhule can make it happen.

    “We had a couple of great situations come up in the game against the Giants,” Belichick pointed out, specifying final-snap scoring opportunities in the second and fourth quarters. “A lot of our players obviously weren’t in (the game) in those situations. The great thing about practice is our players get more opportunities at those situations, especially guys that probably have a higher chance of being in there during the regular season than were in there at those two points in the Giants game, as an example.

    “So, [there are] a lot of reps out here for our players. Obviously more reps in practice – when you add all the practices up – than there are in the games. Just more practice opportunities, more chances to get better, more ways to improve, and more things you can find that you need to work on. I mean, in the end, the games have a lot of value too because it’s a game, and it’s structured differently, but there’s certainly a lot to be gained in practice. So, they’re both really important.”

    “To me, the joint practices are in some ways better than the games, because you get so many situations,” says Rhule, according to panthers.com. “Coach Belichick, to other coaches, he’s the master of situational football, so [we’ll] get a bunch of things thrown at [us] this week, and [we’ll] have to adapt and adjust, and react to different defenses.

    “It’s unbelievably invaluable for our guys, we’re excited about it.”

  • Mack Wilson

    Mack Wilson had five tackles in the preseason opener vs. the Giants. (Photo by Eric Canha/USA TODAY Sports)

    Full contact

    The Patriots held only a handful of padded practices during the first two weeks of training camp. But they involve only limited contact, compared to games.

    Yet, against the Giants, linebacker Mack Wilson looked to be in mid-season, textbook form on five tackles and a quarterback hit in 25 defensive snaps.

    “Honestly, I was ready,” Wilson said after Monday’s practice. “I was itching to hit somebody with everything I had. It was fun. I was happy, I was looking forward to it. I didn’t really want to come out (of the game). But obviously there were other guys who needed to get run. It was fun, that’s all I can say.”

  • Jan 27, 2021; American quarterback Mac Jones of Alabama (10) and American quarterback Jamie Newman of Wake Forest/Georgia (7) watch drills during American practice at Hancock Whitney Stadium in Mobile, Alabama, USA; Mandatory Credit: Vasha Hunt-USA TODAY Sports

    Mac Jones (left) and Wake Forest’s Jamie Newman were coached by Matt Rhule at the 2021 Reese’s Senior Bowl. (Vasha Hunt-USA TODAY Sports)

    What if?

    Coming off his first year as a NFL head coach and overseeing a post-Cam Newton transition in Carolina, Rhule had the opportunity to coach Mac Jones in practices before the 2021 Reese’s Senior Bowl.

    But when the Panthers picked eighth overall in last year’s draft, they chose South Carolina cornerback Jaycee Horn. He started right away, but was lost for the season due to a broken foot in Week 3.

    Jones was selected 15th in the first round and started all 18 games as a Patriots’ rookie. Meanwhile, Carolina employed three starting QB’s, including Sam Darnold, P.J. Walker and a re-acquired Newton. 

    In November, Rhule was asked to revisit their choice of the cornerback Horn over the quarterback Jones.

    “I love Mac Jones,” Rhule said. “I enjoyed every second of having him at the Senior Bowl, and there’s not a lot of doubt that he was going to be an excellent player. There was not a lot of doubt that he’s going to be a long-time NFL player.

    “I think Mac’s a winner. He’s tough. He’s smart. … There’s no doubt when we had him that Mac is going to be a long-term, long-term excellent NFL quarterback.”