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Banta-Cain making gains

Tully Banta-Cain is entering his fourth season with the Patriots since being drafted in 2003. Although he hasn't started a regular season game yet, he started last Saturday's exhibition game, and could start in the regular season opener on Sept.

Wednesday is hump day, but with the Patriots third exhibition game against Washington on Saturday, they had better be over the hump already. Today was more like a typical Thursday practice for the Patriots, and Thursday's practice will adhere to Friday's format. That's just the way it is in the preseason.

In a normal mid-season week, many of the players would be focused on learning the other team's style and about the guy he'll be going up against.

Of course, this is a priority in the preseason as well – Coach Joe Gibbs is certainly hoping his Redskins beat the Patriots on Saturday, so everyone had better be preparing. In addition, many of the players are trying to learn as much as they can to improve their fundamentals and their standing with the team, especially with the regular season only two games away.

One player who has shown a great deal of improvement since the beginning of training camp is linebacker Tully Banta-Cain. Banta-Cain started on the outside in Saturday's Cardinals game. He's been with the Patriots since they drafted him in the seventh round of the 2003 NFL draft, but never started in his first three seasons.

Asked what he attributes his offseason improvement to, Banta-Cain replied, "I wouldn't say I'm any better of a football player. I just think that I've gotten more opportunities to showcase my abilities. I've always had the same confidence and I've always believed in myself. I just think that every year I've tried to elevate my game, and this year I'm trying to do the same thing"

Banta-Cain recorded three tackles last Saturday, as well as notching one sack. Preseason stats don't go into the books, but Banta-Cain has as many sacks as he does NFL seasons coming into this year - three. He says he's "still trying to get better every day." But he had a lot to say about how the playing experience he's had during the first two games has helped him.

"Experience is really what's going to make you a better player," Banta-Cain said. "You just have to be out there, feeling out the speed of the game and making the right adjustments – creating a chemistry with the other guys, where they can depend on you to get the job done, just like you depend on them."

He doesn't think it's difficult for a player in his situation to earn the trust of the defense.

"It just comes down to making plays. That's really the bottom line," said Banta-Cain. "They're going to trust you if you're out there doing what you re supposed to do, making the plays you're supposed to make."

It seems Banta-Cain has been making the plays he's supposed to make, both on special teams and for the defense. Coach Bill Belichick praised his play in a conference call with the media on Sunday.

"I think Tully has had a good training camp. He's shown up with some positive plays in training camp practices and in the games," said Belichick. "There are still a lot of things that he can work on in his game. He's made some plays and I think with more playing time and more experience with the guys that he's playing with, that has helped in their communication and their ability work with each other. I think he's doing a good job."

So far there has been an opportunity for Banta-Cain to prove himself and he has taken advantage of it. At Tuesday's practice, the starting linebackers were Rosevelt Colvin and Banta-Cain outside withMike Vrabel and Junior Seau on the inside.

However, there have been a number of linebackers who have missed time recently. Monty Beisel returned to practice Tuesday after a prolonged absence and Tedy Bruschi is still out with a broken wrist. Chad Brown has also been absent from practice, though he was seen in the locker room today with his left hand tapped, and what looked like a splint on his left pinky finger. Plus, Seau is just entering the mix this week.

With luck, Banta-Cain will continue to make the most of his opportunity. If he's the best man for the job, Belichick will surely start him at linebacker in the first regular season game against the Bills.

Notes:

Only the beginning of practice is available to the press, and the linebackers worked on dropping into pass coverage today. The offensive linemen worked on peeling off double-team blocks to pick up linebackers. ... Nick Kaczur was at practice for the second day in a row after being released from the PUP. … Wideout John Stone returned to practice today after a long hiatus. He missed both of the preseason games thus far. … Kicker Martin Gramatica was not seen on the field today, though he was in the locker room before practice. … Defensive linemen Dan Klecko also wasn't on the field during the portion of practice available to the press, nor were Le Kevin Smith, Jarvis Green, Chad Brown, Marquise Hill, Tedy Bruschi, Freddie Roach, Patrick Pass, Guss Scott and Chad Jackson.

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