It felt like there was always an important caveat to the Patriots defense’s performance throughout training camp: the offense they’ve been shutting down through four weeks of padded practices is still in the process of figuring out how to…run a successful offensive play.
Then, the two teams they’ve faced in preseason thus far — the New York Giants and Carolina Panthers — will probably have offenses in the bottom half of the league this year because of their quarterback situations.
Not so with the Las Vegas Raiders, who reportedly woke the Patriots’ defense up in a rude fashion during joint practices on Tuesday.
In particular, 1-on-1 reps between the Raiders receivers and Patriots cornerbacks sounded jarring. Jalen Mills, who has been a training camp star, lost all three of his reps against the Raiders' newly acquired superstar Davante Adams. Myles Bryant, who looks like he now has the inside track to start in the slot Week 1, struggled against Hunter Renfrow as well.
7-on-7s and full-team drills didn't sound like they went much better, with Adams and Renfrow winning frequently.
As predicted, Mills doesn’t feel as much like a lockdown corner when he’s lined up across from the best receiver in football. Covering Hunter Renfrow on an island is no simple task, either.
Aside from the fact that 1-on-1s inherently favor the offense, nothing about those outcomes should surprise you. Whereas there isn’t necessarily a major talent gap between the Patriots’ corners and receivers, who also win a ton of those drills in practice, there is a gulf between the Patriots’ defensive back room and, well, one of the best receiving rooms in football.
If it makes you feel better, though, the defensive front continues to impress, with Matthew Judon looking like the wrecking ball he was at the beginning of the 2021 season. They're probably going to need every bit of disruption he, Christian Barmore, and the rest can provide to keep pressure off the secondary.
But before we jump completely into the realm of negativity about New England's defensive backfield, let's take stock of what they actually have and what it means for how this unit will play in 2022.
Contrary to how it might feel, the Patriots don’t have a bad roster. This team has NFL-caliber players at every position, including cornerback and linebacker, and that fact alone should keep them competitive in most games this season.
Their safeties comprise arguably the best position group on the team, the likes of Mills, Bryant, and Jonathan Jones have all proven they can hold their own, and rookies Marcus and Jack Jones will probably find themselves on the field sooner rather than later.
It’s then up to this coaching staff, led by the greatest head coach in NFL history, to get the most out of this squad — calling the right plays, exploiting every possible mismatch, putting the correct players on the field for every situation.
Playing good chess should work for the Patriots against teams like the New York Jets (probably) and Chicago Bears. But when they play the Raiders, Cincinnati Bengals, and Buffalo Bills later in the year? Yeah, the secondary is going to give up a play or two.
The important part is that the Patriots' defensive backs learn from experiences like the one they're having against Adams and the Raiders to sharpen their skills and keep the damage to a minimum when the snaps really count. Hopefully the offense can start consistently doing its job by then.
The bottom line: if you're going to get schooled, best get it out of the way now instead of when you play this team in December.