WHITE SULFUR SPRINGS, WV –The weather was better. The teams were better. The physicality was better. Even the attendance was better (more on that later).
Pretty much everything about Wednesday's joint practice between the Patriots and the Texans exceeded what took place a day earlier. After both teams engaged in a lackluster practice on the first day at The Greenbrier, the teams took it up a notch on Wednesday and the Tom Brady and the rest of the offense in particular were up for the challenge.
The Texans strong defense may have gotten the better of things in the opener but that was not the case on Day 2. Brady was sharp from the outset, connecting several times with Chris Hogan and Brandin Cooks while dramatically improving on their initial performance.
It wasn't all perfect, and Brady was seen looking quite dejected as he returned to the sideline following one set of full team reps, but his precision was tough to miss. Hogan, who has been as impressive as any Patriot this summer, made a pair of noteworthy plays. The first saw him race down the seam for a big gain after catching Brady's perfect throw, and the second had him streaking across the middle before reaching out to grab the deep crossing route.
Cooks heated up a bit later, torching the Texans in the red zone. He caught a skinny post for one score and followed that with another touchdown from in close. Cooks wasn't targeted much on Tuesday, leading some to wonder if Brady was trying to keep his new toy under wraps. But he was his typically active self in this practice, showing his top-end speed – something former Steelers quarterback and current TuneIn Radio co-host Kordell Stewart noticed from his perch near the end zone.
"He can give the Patriots a different dimension," Stewart said. "They haven't really had a guy like him. Randy Moss was probably the best receiver Tom has ever had. Cooks has a different kind of speed and I can definitely see him making a lot of big plays in this offense."
The Texans talented corners Johnathan Joseph and Kareem Jackson still turned in their share of plays, as did linebacker Benardrick McKinney, who made a phenomenal play to prevent a Rex Burkhead touchdown in the back corner of the end zone.
Defensively the Patriots were, at times, dominant. The front provided consistent pressure while the secondary, which included Stephon Gilmore after the free agent acquisition did not take part in team reps a day earlier, was quite stingy. Neither Tom Savage nor rookie DeShaun Watson managed to move the Texans effectively at any point in the practice with only an occasional Lamar Miller run providing any production.
With the overall improvement came some feistiness, and as is usually the case in the joint practices it was the special teams that seemed to bring out the bad blood. While there were no real skirmishes in the practice, there were a few occasions where each side showed its displeasure.
Jonathan Jones did a great job serving as the vise guy on one punt, pinning Eddie Pleasant to the turf for several seconds. That led to some barking back and forth. Soon after Nate Ebner was in the middle of a scrum (rugby pun intended) with a Texans cover man on a kickoff.
The increased intensity was welcomed after a mostly sedate first day.
After a spot on national radio, a four-hour car ride and delayed flight back to Boston, here are some blogservations from the final training camp practice open to the public for the Patriots this summer.
The New England Patriots visit the Houston Texans for joint practices at the The Greenbrier in White Sulphur Springs, WV on Wednesday, August 16, 2017.
-The list of those missing practice continues to grow, and it may have a notable addition moving forward. LaAdrian Waddle was unable to finish practice on Tuesday and he was not seen on Wednesday. Neither was rookie running back LeShun Daniels. Matthew Slater, Mike Gillislee, Brandon King, Keionta Davis, Shea McClellin, Tony Garcia, Nate Solder, Matt Lengel and Deatrich Wise missed both practices in West Virginia. Dont'a Hightower (PUP) and Andrew Jelks (NFI) remain out of action.
-Adding to the bad news, rookie Derek Rivers appeared to injure his left knee and missed the remainder of the workout. Rivers went down covering a kickoff and was attended to by trainer Jim Whalen. The two departed after several minutes, and although Rivers was able to walk under his own power he did not return. Rivers was enjoying his time in West Virginia, showing some athleticism and burst off the edge in the work against the Texans. If his injury keeps him off the field for any length of time it would be an unfortunate break for the rookie.
-Mike Vrabel certainly is a hands-on defensive coordinator. On Tuesday he donned makeshift shoulder pads and took on players in various drills. On Wednesday he had a dummy strapped to him and once again wasn't afraid to get physical. He took some decent shots from his troops, which caused his head to snap back on each occasion. Incidentally, Vrabel did his pre-practice running alone on Wednesday after joining Wes Welker a day earlier. Patriots assistant special teams coach Bubba Ventrone ran at the same time on a different field.
-Bill Belichick had some interesting guests with him at The Greenbrier on Wednesday. Former Major League manager Tony LaRussa, a longtime Belichick friend, was on hand to take in practice. Former Indiana men's basketball coach Tom Crean was also in attendance with Belichick. The three spoke for several minutes prior to practice while both LaRussa and Crean chatted with media. Crean is the brother-in-law of John and Jim Harbaugh.
-There were a number of Patriots fans once again on hand to watch practice. One who caught the eye was wearing an authentic navy jersey with the No. 59 and Katzenmoyer on the back. Not sure when I last thought about Andy Katzenmoyer, one of the Patriots two first-round picks in 1999.
-Dion Lewis, Danny Amendola and Cyrus Jones rotated as the kick returners during early special teams work. Later when the Patriots were doing the kicking off, Bruce Ellington took one up the middle before sprinting to the sideline untouched. While it's often difficult to accurately assess how successful a training camp return is considering the absence of full tackling, not a single Patriot got a finger on Ellington, and after the special teams struggles against Jacksonville in the opener perhaps that's an early-season concern to monitor.
-James O'Shaughnessy continues to look the part of an athletic pass-catching option at tight end. He was active throughout Wednesday's practice, catching several balls from both Brady and Jimmy Garoppolo. While most of the receptions were of the short variety, his most impressive grab came deep down the seam when he went up between a pair of defenders and came down with the pass from Brady. Meanwhile, Dwayne Allen seemed to fill more of a blocking role during practice, and with O'Shaughnessy now healthy after missing some time earlier in camp perhaps Belichick is grooming him for a role in the passing game.
-Malcom Brown made a terrific play to diagnose a Houston screen midway through practice. The Texans appeared to have it set up well but Brown read it and raced out near the sideline. Not sure if the big guy would have made the tackle as he found himself in space against Miller, but it's possible he would have done enough to slow things down and provide time for his teammates to clean it up.
-Kony Ealy appeared to injure his shoulder at one point but was able to remain on the field and took some reps later in practice.
-Eric Rowe came up with a pick during some red zone work late in practice. He enjoyed a couple of active days and appears healthy after missing a couple days and the preseason opener against Jacksonville.
-The Patriots and Texans will take part in a walkthrough at The Greenbrier on Thursday and then travel to Houston in advance of Saturday's preseason tilt.