FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Quick-hit thoughts and notes around the New England Patriots and NFL:
1. A stronger finish from Judon: One of the unsolved Patriots mysteries of 2021 is what contributed to linebacker Matthew Judon's lack of production down the homestretch.
Judon totaled 12.5 sacks through his first 13 games but was held without a sack in his final five games, which coincided with the Patriots' 1-4 close to the season. He had just two quarterback hits over that stretch.
While Judon spent a five-day stint on the COVID-19 list between the Week 16 and 17 games, he previously downplayed that as a factor. Now, as he prepares for the 2022 season, after tuning up in Friday night’s preseason finale by playing 14 snaps and registering a tackle and quarterback hit against the Las Vegas Raiders, he has a stronger finish on his mind.
In his debut interview on sports radio WEEI's "Gresh and Keefe" program, Judon was asked for one area he's looking to add to his game, and he said: "Conditioning down the stretch. It's a long season, and I got to be fresh. I have been asking some older veterans how they did it, how they went through and made it through year upon year being great, throughout the whole season. That's a big thing I'm working on."
It makes sense, considering Judon played a career-high 877 defensive snaps last season. That was significantly more than his previous high of 793 in 2019 with the Baltimore Ravens.
In 2020, the season before he signed a four-year, $56 million contract with the Patriots, Judon played only 565 defensive snaps.
This year, the Patriots haven't shown any signs they intend to lighten Judon's role, perhaps other than taking him off the punt-rush unit. He's a fixture on early downs -- where he provides a mix of edge-setting against the run and pass rush -- and in the team's more rush-specific packages.
"Matt's got a lot of good energy, loves football, plays hard," Patriots coach Bill Belichick said. "He works well with everybody and is a good communicator. A tough, physical football player."
There doesn't appear to be considerable depth behind Judon, with 2020 third-round pick Anfernee Jennings emerging as a top backup and 2020 second-rounder Josh Uche profiling as more of a pass-rush specialist. Hopes that 2021 third-round pick Ronnie Perkins would be part of that group were dashed when he was placed on injured reserve because of an undisclosed injury last week.
Judon said the Patriots are determined to play with a "downhill mentality" and they "want to be aggressive, attack the line of scrimmage and knock it back."
Judon's ability to do so -- from the start of the season through the end -- will be critical if the defense delivers in those areas. And given some of the preseason struggles from the Mac Jones-led offense, the Patriots might need to lean on the defense more to buy more time for the offense to find its groove.
2. Montgomery's injury: Belichick said veteran running back Ty Montgomery, who was carted to the locker room after injuring an ankle during Friday's preseason game, traveled home with the team from Las Vegas. Montgomery was scheduled to undergo more testing to determine the severity of the injury. He seemed like a lock to make the roster as a third option behind Damien Harris and Rhamondre Stevenson, and if the injury sidelines him for an extended period, Belichick will have to assess how comfortable he might be turning to rookies Pierre Strong Jr. and Kevin Harris, whom he said did some "encouraging things" Friday night.
3. QB breakdown: Belichick noted how the Patriots view joint practices as extensions of preseason games, so between two with the Panthers and then two with the Raiders, those were four opportunities to evaluate players in addition to three preseason games. At quarterback, rookie Bailey Zappe easily played the most snaps in games (119), followed by Jones (41) and Brian Hoyer (30). That reflected how most of Jones' work came in the joint practices.
4. Scouting Kenny Pickett: The Patriots visit the Steelers in Week 2 of the regular season, which is why Sunday’s Steelers-Lions preseason finale figures to be of particular interest to Belichick & Co. Steelers first-round pick Kenny Pickett is making a charge to win the starting job over Mitch Trubisky, and what unfolds Sunday is going to be a significant factor in Steelers coach Mike Tomlin's decision. It's a top NFL storyline, with a significant trickle-down effect in New England -- with some similarities to how Jones made his charge to ultimately win the job over Cam Newton last season.
5. Trent at LT: Why did the Patriots move Trent Brown from right tackle to left tackle this year? Part of it might be tied to keeping Brown motivated, but Michael Lombardi, former Patriots assistant to the head coach, relayed notable insight when he said on his "GM Shuffle" podcast: "One of the things I think people lose sight is when you have a left tackle that can run-block, it sets a different tempo. The Patriots did that to run the ball left. It gives them a better chance to really dominate the line of scrimmage going to your left." Rhamondre Stevenson's 13-yard run on Friday night, with Brown out in front, was a good example of that.
6. Wynn's future: Offensive tackle Isaiah Wynn's future in New England became a hot-button topic when Albert Breer of SI.com reported the Patriots talked to other teams about him as a trade possibility. The timing of those talks seems like important context, as it makes sense the Patriots explored it in the spring when Wynn wasn't part of the offseason program and the team was eyeing options to create salary-cap space. But after getting a closer look at backups Justin Herron and Yodny Cajuste throughout training camp, trading Wynn seems too risky now unless a team blows them away with an offer.
7. Sign of the times: "The biggest problem with communication is the illusion it's taking place." Those words are on a sign in the Patriots' offensive line meeting room, according to Patriots starting center David Andrews, who said it reflects how linemen are always trying to improve their communication and learning how to work together. As Friday night showed, there's a long way to go, with the O-line's inconsistency among the top concerns.
8. Kraft's HOF wait: It was disappointing news for Patriots owner Robert Kraft last week when the late innovative coach Don Coryell was announced as the Pro Football Hall of Fame finalist from a group of 12 coaches and contributors. That means Kraft must wait another year. As part of the process among voters, the group of 12 was reduced in multiple cuts, and Kraft was part of the final cut to four this year. That is why some believe it is more a matter of "when" than "if" for Kraft.
9. Community service award: The Patriots' Premiere Kickoff Gala is scheduled for Thursday night on the field at Gillette Stadium, and the prestigious Ron Burton Community Service Award will be presented. It is often said by Belichick that one of the pillars of being a Patriot is positive contributions in the community, and there is no shortage of quality candidates, with sixth-year defensive lineman Deatrich Wise Jr. among them.
10. Did you know? Zappe is the 13th quarterback drafted by the Patriots under Belichick (2000-present) and the first player at any position from Western Kentucky to be drafted by the franchise.