Ezekiel Elliott makes Patriots practice debut, plus more from Green Bay

Ezekiel Elliott makes Patriots practice debut, plus more from Green Bay
Video ezekiel elliott patriots training camp

GREEN BAY, Wis. — The New England Patriots didn’t get the full training camp experience here complete with the customary bike ride to practice that the Green Bay Packers make each day, but they did get a front-row seat to arguably the most historic team in the NFL. They made the walk from Lambeau Field to the Packers’ practice fields Wednesday over a street lined with fans.

The first of two joint practices against the Packers was a lengthy, physical session on Green Bay’s sun-soaked fields. So after Wednesday’s two-and-a-half hour practice, I thought it would make sense to look at 10 things I learned.

1. Ezekiel Elliott is quickly being incorporated into the New England offense.

The veteran running back signed his one-year contract with the Patriots on Tuesday, then flew straight here with the team for his first practice. He didn’t participate in 11-on-11 drills as he learns the playbook, but he was a part of the team’s walk-through and took part in drills with the running backs.

“I think he just got here,” Mac Jones joked. “He was, like, in his pajamas. Really just trying to get him some Patriots gear and make sure he’s good to go. But he knows football. It’s just the terminology’s a little different. So I’m not worried about him.”

One five is live.@EzekielElliott | #ForeverNE pic.twitter.com/8f8h0Dj2h7

— New England Patriots (@Patriots) August 16, 2023

Elliott figures to back up Rhamondre Stevenson and serve as a short-yardage specialist to take some of the burden off Stevenson. The two running backs met in 2021. They share an agent and have kept in touch in recent years.

“I feel like our skill set is going to complement each other really well,” Stevenson said.

Added Jones: “Zeke’s awesome so far. He already was jumping in there, getting some reps, so that was pretty cool to see. Fresh off a plane, trying to come out here and compete.”

2. Pressure is ramping up on the team’s backup tight ends. That’s because Mike Gesicki suffered a shoulder injury during a tackling drill at Sunday’s practice that has his status in jeopardy for the Sept. 10 season opener.

The Patriots haven’t had an obvious No. 3 tight end emerge from a large group at the position, and that continued Wednesday.

  Timpson Bears bringing state title home to East Texas after win over Tolar

Matt Sokol and Anthony Firkser got the most looks with the starters in Gesicki’s absence, but Hunter Henry was the only tight end who had multiple catches.

The Patriots need someone to step up while Gesicki’s status is in question.

3. Several other important injuries are clouding the Patriots’ Week 1 outlook.

Right guard Mike Onwenu, one of the best in the league at his position, has yet to return to practice following offseason ankle surgery and hasn’t been spotted on a conditioning field. Even once he’s allowed to begin conditioning, he’ll still likely be a few weeks away from being game-ready. It’s beginning to look like he could miss time during the regular season.

Meanwhile, Jonathan Jones, who had been the team’s best defensive back in training camp, has missed seven straight practices due to an undisclosed injury. The team doesn’t have to submit an injury report until Sept. 6, and Bill Belichick isn’t exactly forthcoming with injury news, so it’s unknown if Jones’ injury could cause him to miss games.

Starting left guard Cole Strange and backup running backs Pierre Strong and Ty Montgomery also missed practice Wednesday due to injury.

4. Perhaps that helps explain some of the Patriots’ struggles up front. Without two starters, the New England offensive line had another tough outing Wednesday.

There was no live tackling during the joint practice (and that’s especially the case for quarterbacks), so it’s hard to say exactly how many times Patriots quarterbacks were sacked. But the Packers were getting pressure on about a quarter of the Patriots’ dropbacks.

“You need five guys that can work as one,” left tackle Trent Brown said. “Hopefully we get healthy soon.”

5. Malik Cunningham continued to get reps at quarterback with the Patriots’ backups but didn’t get any passing attempts against the Packers.

Even though he has gotten more time at quarterback since leading a touchdown drive on his lone possession at quarterback in the preseason opener, Cunningham is still playing other positions, too. He has lined up as a punt gunner and wide receiver in recent practices. When he’s at quarterback, the plays tend to focus more on his running ability with calls like zone reads.

  Sections

“He’s doing a good job and it’s awesome to see him out there running those plays,” Mac Jones joked. “I guess I’m not fast enough yet to try those out but maybe one day.”

6. Through three weeks of training camp, the plan for the Patriots passing game is becoming clear. It does well with short and intermediate passes. The players run screens and RPOs effectively. JuJu Smith-Schuster is a nice option on slants and crossing routes.

But the Patriots have little to no deep passing game.

It’s unclear whether that’s by design to combat a league-wide trend of defenses playing with two high safeties to take away those big plays, because the coaches don’t trust the offensive line to block for that long or because they don’t trust their receivers.

But once again Wednesday, the Patriots were effective on throws under 10 yards — but very ineffective beyond that. That leads to a high completion percentage but few chunk plays that can make life easier for an offense.

7. The Patriots defense held up pretty well Wednesday, but the solid overall performance wasn’t without its lumps.

Christian Gonzalez and Marcus Jones were beaten multiple times by Packers receivers, namely Christian Watson and Romeo Doubs. And Jack Jones’ feisty practice ended poorly. At one point early on, he taunted the local crowd when a deep pass from quarterback Jordan Love fell incomplete. Then, toward the end of practice, he got into a pushing match with Jadakis Bonds. Two plays later, amid plenty of trash-talking, the Packers’ Malik Heath hauled in an impressive touchdown catch over Jones.

8. For what might have been the first time since the Patriots drafted him in 2021, Mac Jones opened up on what it has been like to be the team’s starting quarterback in the massive shadow of Tom Brady.

Here in Green Bay, the Packers are embarking on a similar change, turning the offense over to Love after Aaron Rodgers was the franchise’s quarterback for 18 years.

“I think Tom Brady is the greatest quarterback to ever play in the NFL,” Jones said. “So to follow up on him, it’s just trying to chase the standard that he set every day. Honestly, we’re definitely two different players. That’s the only advice I’d have for (Love). Just continue to grow and be yourself. That’s all you can do: Put your best foot forward and compete. But it’s definitely big shoes to fill.”

  Fetterman Fends Off Quack TV Doctor From New Jersey, Punches Ticket to Senate

9. Belichick loves to talk about the history of football with his team, and a trip here is an opportunity to do plenty of it.

“They’re the oldest franchise in the league,” Belichick said, “going all the way back to (Curly) Lambeau and starting the team and all the success they had with (Don) Hutson, (Clarke) Hinkle, (Cecil) Isbell and all those guys. Then, (Vince) Lombardi and most recently with (Brett) Favre, Rodgers and now with Matt (LaFleur). … It’s the third-oldest (pro) sporting field behind Fenway (Park) and Wrigley (Field), so it’s very moving to walk out of the locker room down onto the field when you think about all of the great, great players and coaches that have done that through the years. A great part of football, a great part of tradition, and it’s an honor to be part of it and be here.”

Soldier Field in Chicago opened in 1924, 33 years before Lambeau, but Belichick’s point remains valid. Green Bay is a fun place for football historians.

10. The Patriots’ Saturday night preseason game here against the Packers is probably the lone exhibition in which the starters will play.

It’s unclear how long they’ll be on the field, but it’ll be a first chance to see Jones, Stevenson, Smith-Schuster and the rest of the starting offense together in a game.

“I can’t really focus on the game right now,” Jones said. “But when it comes, it’s a great opportunity in the preseason just to go out there and let it fly.”

(Photo: Morry Gash / Associated Press)

The Football 100, the definitive ranking of the NFL’s best 100 players of all time, goes on sale this fall. Pre-order it here.