Bill Belichick

Takeaways: Josh Uche, Patriots defense steal the show Thursday

Uche and the Patriots defense controlled the action against the Giants offense. Meanwhile, Cam Newton looked solid in his return while Mac Jones leveled off.

Patriots Josh Uche Dont'a Hightower Matthew Judon
New England Patriots linebackers Dont'a Hightower (54), Matt Judon (9) and Josh Uche (55) warm up during Thursday's joint NFL football practice with the New York Giants. Steven Senne/AP
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On a day when the quarterback competition was under the microscope due to Cam Newton’s return, the Patriots defense dragged the spotlight back in their direction with another outstanding performance.

The defense, led by electric linebacker Josh Uche, dominated the Giants in team drills for a second straight day. And the second-year pass-rusher let the Giants and the fans in attendance know about it, too.

On the other side of the ball, Mac Jones once again got the most work of any Patriots quarterback. But this time, it was Newton making the most of his limited opportunities to impress in his first day back from a COVID protocol-related absence.

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Here are some takeaways from Thursday’s scorching-hot practice at Gillette.

Josh Uche shows the Giants what’s up.

Right after a play on which a blitzing Michael Jackson Sr. got a “sack” on Giants quarterback Daniel Jones that blew a play dead, Uche began his rampage.

The second-year outside linebacker came rocketing past Giants left tackle Andrew Thomas so fast Jones didn’t have a chance, tagging the New York quarterback down for a sack.

The very next snap, Uche came exploding into the backfield once again, drawing an offensive hold that pushed the Giants backward in the teams’ simulated two-minute drive. Ironically, the explosive young edge defender could be heard shouting from the field, “They can’t hold me.”

They really couldn’t on Thursday, though.

Uche put both his impressive speed and bend off the edge as well as his pure aggressiveness on display a day after leaving practice early against the Giants. He even bulled his way through right guard Will Hernandez’s block for another sack on New York’s next drive, pumping himself up yet again.

The defense fed off his energy.

Starting outside linebackers Kyle Van Noy (2) and Matthew Judon added “sacks” of their own against Jones, with Deatrich Wise Jr., and Chase Winovich among other players adding “sacks” of their own.

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Arguably the lone major blemishes of the day were a blown coverage that led to long catch-and-run to set up a touchdown and a couple of penalties, including an offsides and a defensive hold in the red zone, that extended Giants drives.

The Patriots defense forced a 3-and-out its first time on the field and forced the Giants to settle for a field goal in a goal-to-go situation inside the 5-yard line. This unit keeps showing what it has all training camp; it won’t give up points easily, even when put in unfavorable situations.

Uche’s ascension will play a key role in the unit’s resurgence. If he continues to play this well as a situational pass-rusher, this defense could truly terrorize opposing offenses once Stephon Gilmore returns.

Cam Newton keeps himself in the conversation.

Wednesday’s dominant practice from Mac Jones, coupled with Newton’s five-day absence due to a COVID protocol “misunderstanding,” had many ready to put the incumbent starter out to pasture.

You wouldn’t have been able to tell from the way Newton took the field Thursday, moving with his trademark energy and gusto during warmups. But he also showed he could meet the moment as well.

Newton once again led off each drill, including the first two-minute drill, with the starting offense, re-assuming (ostensibly, anyway) his role as the starting quarterback.

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More importantly, though, the incumbent starter looked solid from the jump, going 2-of-3 in competitive red zone 7-on-7s and connecting with Jakobi Meyers on a well-placed end zone fade. Newton put the ball up high just as Meyers was turning to find the ball, and the receiver came down with the throw over his defender.

The veteran quarterback’s 11-on-11 segment was efficient on the whole as well with the offense simulating a two-minute drill.

He hit Meyers and Kendrick Bourne twice each for his four completions during the segment. Both his throws to Meyers were darts on short throws through tight windows against zone coverage, showing off both arm strength and accuracy. He then hit Bourne on a deep dig route that the receiver made a nice leaping grab on more than 20 yards downfield.

Then, he had to answer the bell on 3rd-and-10 after two straight incompletions — one batted ball at the line of scrimmage and a dangerous pass to Kristian Wilkerson on an in-breaking route that James Bradberry nearly picked off. But he recovered with a side-arm completion on a crossing route to Bourne to move the chains. The Patriots punched it on the next play thanks to a Damien Harris touchdown run.

The whole drive took just eight plays officially and, aside from the Wilkerson throw, looked crisp and decisive. It was hard to tell if that miscue was a product of Newton staring down the target or Wilkerson not being where Newton expected him to be.

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It wasn’t perfect, but he commanded the offense as well as he did against the Eagles and proved he could stretch the field when the team needed chunk plays.

We don’t know how much Newton will get to build on Thursday’s performance in Sunday’s preseason game in New York. But in a “got-to-have-it” moment, Newton had it. For a day.

The Mac Jones Hype Train slows a bit.

The rookie hasn’t repeated mistakes often thus far in training camp. But his first two throws of 11-on-11s demonstrated that it still happens from time to time.

On his very first play with the first-team offense, Jones’s throw for Bourne was nearly swiped by Giants safety Xavier McKinney. It looked like the rookie didn’t hold the safety with his eyes long enough and locked onto his receiver’s in-breaking route, and the safety stepped in front of the throw but couldn’t hold on.

The next play, Jones committed the same sin but wasn’t as lucky (in a way). Former Patriots defensive back Logan Ryan read Jones’s eyes all the way and picked off his deep throw down the right seam to Jonnu Smith. Fortunately for the rookie, the play wouldn’t have counted due to an offsides penalty on the Giants.

But this wasn’t a free-play shot from Jones; it was just a poor throw. It also resurfaced old concerns about the first-round pick at times not manipulating defenders enough with his eyes before throwing — something that nearly got him picked off during last Thursday’s preseason game and happened on two poor throws in his first padded practice.

“They were just messing around a little bit more and trying to show different looks,” Jones said of the Giants safeties Thursday after admitting the second joint practice “wasn’t as good” as Wednesday’s.

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True to form, Jones rebounded from the early mistakes and began putting the ball on target. The only problem: his receivers weren’t catching it.

Four different Patriots receivers (Harris, Smith, Gunner Olszewski and Nelson Agholor) had drops on that last drive, though Agholor’s may have been more of a good defensive play than a pure drop. Olszewski’s drop was all too familiar: a perfectly thrown deep ball from Jones down the right sideline that slipped through the receiver’s hands.

The offense even threw in a false start to make things even sloppier.

In the end, Jones got the offense to the promised land on a ball he lofted to the backline of the end zone that Bourne made a beautiful toe-tapping grab on. It looked like a throwaway at first, and the defender on the throw seemed to give up on the play. Fortunately, Bourne didn’t.

Still, the simulated two-minute drive was anything but smooth. It took 20 plays all told and was so long that the offense was down on one knee panting in the heat by the end of it.

Jones’s later drive with the second-team offense: a 3-and-out that featured a questionable non-call for defensive pass interference in which a defender literally seemed to tackle Meyers from behind.

There was still more good than bad overall for Jones Thursday. For one thing, he picked up two fourth-down conversations during the lengthy 11-on-11 period. He also had a five-star throw in red zone 7-on-7s to J.J. Taylor for a touchdown — beautifully lofted out in front but allowing him to pull it down inbounds near the front right corner of the end zone.

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Also, the fact that Jones got some work with the starting offense once again despite Newton’s return feels notable. The Patriots clearly want to get a longer look at what he can do at the helm of the offense.

He once again proved he could battle through adversity as well and doesn’t generally compound mistakes. So far, he’s answered just about every question you could have (to the naked eye) about his ability to start an NFL game.

Whether he actually gets the chance to start the season, however, remains a mystery.

Quick Hits

Mac Jones takes on extra-credit work.

-Asking Patriots defensive players about Mac Jones often feels like an exercise in futility as most say they’re too focused on their side of the ball to comment on the rookie quarterback.

But after Thursday’s practice, Dont’a Hightower delivered some interesting dirt on the tenacious first-round pick.

Apparently, the young quarterback’s appetite for learning is so large that studying the offensive playbook just isn’t enough for him.

“I actually found out yesterday he’s been looking at some of the defensive plays, so he can conceptually see how we work and stuff,” Hightower said. “I give him credit for that. Not a lot of young guys would see that on his own.”

Talk about knowing your opponent.

When Cam Newton talks about his rookie counterpart having “pristine” preparation, that’s the kind of stuff he’s talking about.

Nicks and scrapes

-Starting center David Andrews had to step off the field during practice with an undisclosed injury. Super-sub Ted Karras, who took over for Andrews for most of the 2019 season, was the first man up to replace him.

Nickel cornerback Jonathan Jones also had to leave the field with a lower-leg injury. As he did in last Thursday’s preseason game, Jalen Mills, who has generally started where Stephon Gilmore would be, bumped inside to play Jones’s slot corner role while Joejuan Williams played outside corner opposite J.C. Jackson.

Bringing the noise

Whereas Newton had a quiet atmosphere with which to drive the field Thursday, Jones’s first drive featured a ton of background noise to navigate through.

The Patriots pumped music through the loudspeakers while Jones was on the field, which is not an unfamiliar occurrence during competitive segments. Then, seemingly out of nowhere, a helicopter –possibly containing Patriots owner Robert Kraft — dropped down onto the lower practice field as Jones was dragging the offense methodically down the field.

Though the helicopter wasn’t necessarily planned — or was it? — the additional noise provided an important challenge for Jones: be loud.

“I think that’s something that I’ve put a lot of pride into recently is just listening to Hoyer and Cam do it,” he said about commanding the huddle and the line of scrimmage. “They are loud and I can be loud too. It’s good to be loud so that everyone can hear you, even if it might be wrong. So just be loud and be wrong if you are going to be wrong. But don’t be quiet and wrong.”

To be sure, you can hear Jones much more now than you used to when he first started calling plays in OTAs. Being around authoritative veterans like Newton and Hoyer appears to be paying off, and it’s certainly making the rookie look more confident with each passing day.

Other notes

-Jackson had a spectacular pass-breakup on a free-play shot from Daniel Jones after the Patriots jumped offsides. He is constantly around the football and never seems to fail to get a hand on it when he has a chance.

-Agholor continues to struggle to track the football and secure it firmly with his hands.

He had one drop on a throw from Jones in early 7-on-7s where he initially caught the ball but then bobbled it and got forced out of bounds.

His later drop/PBU should never have been in doubt. It was a solid throw by Jones to the left sideline that Agholor jumped for without needing to, then couldn’t maintain as he tried to tight-rope the chalk.

For a guy who’s paid to make big plays down the field, the newly signed free agent seems to have a problem with consistently looking the ball into his hands and keeping it there.

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