It was an eventful two days of joint practices between the Patriots and Packers in Green Bay that quite possibly saw significant growth for the hometown team.
The Patriots struggled at times on Wednesday as the Packers went deep for big plays of the team’s young cornerbacks. While quarterback Mac Jones and the Patriots offense was effective in moving down the field at times, they couldn’t match Green Bay’s electricity on offense.
Things shifted in a major way Thursday. The Patriots’ defense amped up the intensity. Fights erupted. Linebacker Anfernee Jennings was ejected for laying out a Packers rookie defender on a punt drill. Safety Jabrill Peppers was jawing at the Packers all day. And most importantly, Jones was hitting his receivers deep, and cornerbacks Jack Jones and Christian Gonzalez weren’t allowing big plays.
Oh, and running back Ezekiel Elliott showed up.
Now let’s dig into five things to watch as the Patriots and Packers face off in a somewhat official capacity at Lambeau Field on Saturday night.
1. Who’s playing QB?
We could see as many as four players under center for the Patriots on Saturday, and quite frankly, we probably should.
Jones played in Weeks 2 and 3 of the preseason last year. And that was after going through joint practices before those games. So, if history repeats itself, we’ll see Jones even though he took a boatload of reps out in Green Bay during joint practices.
Bailey Zappe also took a lot of snaps under center in practice against the Packers. But we’ll likely see him in extensive action again Saturday to see if he can improve on his performance last Thursday in the Patriots’ preseason opener when, yes, he went 12-of-14 but also generated just 79 passing yards and three first downs.
Finally, it seems the Patriots want to see if Malik Cunningham can overtake Trace McSorley for the No. 3 QB role. Cunningham, who converted to wide receiver in the spring after a college career at quarterback, has seen his snaps under center increase over the last two weeks.
The Patriots’ speed and efficiency was night and day in last week’s preseason game when Cunningham took over for McSorley. Cunningham was 3-of-4 for 19 yards with five carries for 34 yards while McSorley was 1-of-3 for four yards with three rushing yards on one carry.
New Patriots running back Ezekiel Elliott actually got into full-team competitive drills Thursday against the Packers after only participating at a walk-through speed Wednesday. Elliott missed three weeks of training camp plus all of OTAs and minicamp, so he needs to get into game shape fast.
Ultimately, time will tell if Elliott will actually play against the Packers and take full hits to the ground. But the Patriots really like what they’ve seen from their new running back and feel he can learn the offense quickly.
Rhamondre Stevenson could get some work on Saturday, as well. Otherwise, it will be the Kevin Harris, J.J. Taylor and C.J. Marable show, with Pierre Strong and Ty Montgomery sitting out of practice.
3. Demario Douglas watch
Those who weren’t able to attend training camp and watch rookie wide receiver Demario “Pop” Douglas put on a show every day were excited to watch the Liberty product in last week’s game. Then he played two snaps and sat with the rest of the Patriots’ starters.
Let’s run it back again this week. Since veterans typically play in Week 2 of the preseason, we should see more out of Douglas. He’s been schooling defensive backs in 1-on-1 drills and was a favorite target of Zappe’s all summer. He caught a ton of passes in Thursday’s practice session with the Packers.
The Patriots weren’t ruling out the idea that Douglas could be the team’s starting slot receiver coming into the summer. He’s only improved his chances of playing time since camp broke in late July.
4. Marte Mapu’s physicality
The rookie out of Sacramento State was finally unleashed this week in Green Bay as he was able to shed his red non-contact jersey. On Day 2 of no limitations, he laid out Packers tight end Tucker Kraft and briefly sent him off the field.
Mapu, a 6-foot-3, 230-pound linebacker/safety hybrid, packs a punch. He looks like a future Patriots team leader, and his teammates can’t stop raving about him on and off the field.
It will be exciting to see No. 30 on the field at all Saturday, but when he’s coming downhill at full speed, watch out.
5. Rookie cornerbacks
The Patriots have three rookie cornerbacks who are 6-foot-2 or taller and run sub-4.4-second 40-yard dash times in Christian Gonzalez, Ameer Speed and Isaiah Bolden. It wasn’t a perfect week of practice for Gonzalez, but he did make an impressive pass breakup on Thursday.
Bolden had pass breakups both days. Speed has shown potential this summer, as well.
The Packers have impressive young wide receivers in Christian Watson, Romeo Doubs and Jayden Reed ready to test the Patriots’ young cornerbacks.
Expect to see a lot of rookie tackle Sidy Sow. He’s making a potential push for a starting role as the Patriots have kicked Riley Reiff over to guard in Cole Strange, Mike Onwenu and Kody Russey’s absences. … Tight end Mike Gesicki is injured, and Week 1 is fast approaching. If he’s not ready for the start of the season, then the Patriots will need to roster another tight end. Their current options are Anthony Firkser, undrafted rookie Johnny Lumpkin, Matt Sokol and Scotty Washington. Firkser and Washington are the most Gesicki-like. Firkser has been more impressive in camp but has really only come on strong as a passing target recently. … Rookie wide receiver Kayshon Boutte is another player to watch from the 2023 draft class. He hyped up Elliott with a touchdown catch late in Thursday’s practice. … Rookie standout Keion White impressed in last Thursday’s game. He left this Thursday’s practice early. It would be disappointing if he can’t suit up against the Packers. … Pass rushers Josh Uche and Matt Judon have continued their dominant ways this summer. Packers starting QB Jordan Love could be under siege if they get into the game. … One of the biggest questions of the 2023 season is who will replace Devin McCourty at free safety? We’ll get our first official look assuming veterans start Saturday. The leading candidates are Kyle Dugger and Adrian Phillips. … The competitions have been pretty close between Nick Folk and rookie Chad Ryland at kicker and Corliss Waitman and Bryce Baringer at punter. Baringer can’t have a shank like he did in Thursday’s game.
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