The New England Patriots are in the win column for the first time this preseason, as Bill Belichick and company were able to pull away from the Carolina Panthers with a 20-10 win at Gillette Stadium on Friday night. This game was the culmination of a busy week for these two teams, as they held two joint practices leading into the exhibition. While there were plenty of reps throughout the week, New England opted to play its starters for the first time this summer, while Carolina held out most of its main figures like quarterback Baker Mayfield.
On the whole, it was a mixed bag for both clubs. There were some good things that popped up throughout the game, but there were also other situations that they'll need to correct before the bullets fly for real in the regular season. Below, you'll find our main impressions of each team as this exhibition unfolded, the main turning point and, of course, the top play of the evening.
The Patriots rolled out their starters for the first time this summer, and there was particular attention paid to the offense. Out of the gate, it looked like the unit was out of sync. It went three-and-out on its first two possessions and managed just three yards of total offense. Mac Jones seemed a bit rusty and had a number of incompletions that were flat out misses, throwing one behind DeVante Parker and then over the head of Jakobi Meyers. Second-year back Rhamondre Stevenson -- who is a candidate to claim the James White role in the passing game -- didn't have his head turned and missed a dump off from Jones in the midst of those struggles.
However, the offense found its footing on the third possession of the night, marching on a 10-play, 81-yard touchdown drive. That was sparked by a 45-yard connection between Jones and Nelson Agholor who finished with 52 yards on two catches (three targets). Along with Agholor impressing over that stretch, Ty Montgomery continues to prove he'll be a versatile piece in this offense. He lined up in the backfield and logged four carries, including a goal line touch that resulted in a touchdown. That ability to work out of the backfield and work as a wide receiver will be fascinating to watch unfold.
On the defensive side of the ball, the starting front seven was able to apply pressure early. Josh Uche and Deatrich Wise Jr. were able to register sacks and kept the Panthers quarterbacks off their spot quite a bit. Linebacker Raekwon McMillan's speed was noticeable within that group and will be a welcome addition to a unit that desperately needs more quickness.
In what has been a growing theme this summer, New England's defense has been pretty opportunistic, creating multiple turnovers. Safety Joshuah Bledsoe -- who is making a strong case to make the 53-man roster -- was able to recover a fumble forced by rookie Marcus Jones. In the second half, cornerback Shaun Wade and safety Brenden Schooler also had picks on P.J. Walker. DaMarcus Mitchell also strip-sacked Walker in the end zone that Sam Roberts recovered for a touchdown.
While not a surprise considering how things have played out in camp, it's important to note that Brian Hoyer and Bailey Zappe. This should make it clear that Patricia will be the offensive play-caller in Week 1.. He held the play sheet while Jones and the first-team offense was on the field, and that continued throughout the game with
On the injury front, second-round rookie receiver Tyquan Thornton was ruled out after suffering a shoulder injury. Naturally, that will be worth monitoring in the days to come.
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With Carolina holding out a number of starters, there's not as many key takeaways as there were on New England's sideline. That said, first-round rookie Ikem Ekwonu was one of the few Week 1 locks who started, and the NC State product did struggle a bit. While he made a play as a run blocker, pass protection was the main issue, as he allowed two sacks. On a third-and-long situation in the first half, Patriots linebacker Josh Uche was able to fly past Ekwonu to bring down Walker for the sack.
While Mayfield and Sam Darnold didn't play, there was a quarterback battle going on with Carolina between Walker and rookie Matt Corral. They are likely fighting for that third and final spot on the 53-man roster at the quarterback position, and both didn't make too may "wow" plays. Walker finished his night completing eight of his 15 passes for 107 yards and two interceptions while also fumbling in the end zone, which resulted in a touchdown. Corral was 9-of-15 for 58 yards.
Given that Corral was a third0round pick out of Ole Miss this past spring, this really isn't a pure "competition," but Walker didn't do too much to endear himself to other prospective clubs in the event he's looking for a new destination later this summer.
Elsewhere, Tae Hayes had some solid moments for the Panthers. The former undrafted free agent out of Appalachian State was able to disrupt a deep shot to Patriots receiver Tre Nixon in the end zone. Hayes took advantage of a bad throw by Zappe, picked the ball off and returned it 50 yards for a touchdown to even the score at 10 apiece.
After that play, the Panthers were flagged for unsportsmanlike conduct after the entire roster came off the sideline and celebrated into the end zone. While a relatively minor situation, it does highlight the lack of control that Matt Rhule has with his club, which was on display during the joint practices, with multiple scuffles throughout the week.
The biggest swing in this game was Agholor's 45-yard catch in the first half. That injected life into New England's offense and allowed the team to eventually reach the end zone, but you'll read more about that below in our "Play of the Game" section.
After the Panthers tied the game on a pick-six by Zappe, New England responded well. It immediately regained the lead after going on a seven-play field goal drive, and then the defense proceeded to slow the Carolina offense, forcing back-to-back punts with just 25 yards of offense allowed. Finally, with less than two minutes remaining in the game, the defense was able to strip Walker in the end zone and recover it for a touchdown to pull away by 10 points.
Play of the game
The biggest play of the first half came on a Jones bomb to Agholor at the start of the second quarter. The second-year quarterback dropped back on a first-and-10 play from the New England 42-yard line, stepped up and uncorked a 45-yard throw down the left sideline. The ball perfectly fell into Agholor's arms and immediately had the Patriots in the red zone, where they'd ultimately cash in on a touchdown run from Montgomery.
Coming into camp, Agholor was one player many pointed to about possibly being a trade candidate considering his so-so season in 2021 and the depth at the position. However, he's put together a strong camp thus far, and that is now translating onto the field, so he is certainly making the case to be a deep threat in this offense.
From here, the Patriots will wrap up their preseason with a trip to Las Vegas, where they'll see old friend Josh McDaniels and his new team in the Raiders on Friday. Similar to what they did leading into this game, those clubs will have joint practices next week. Meanwhile, the Panthers will head back to Carolina for its lone home preseason game of the summer. There, they'll host the Buffalo Bills on Friday evening.