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Brady, Gronk dominate; Patriots/Saints blogservations

Observations from Patriots-Saints joint practices in West Virginia.

Check out our favorite photos from the Patriots joint practice with the Saints on Thursday, August 20, 2015 at the the Greenbrier Resort in White Sulphur Springs, WV.

WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS, W.V. – They saved their best for last.

Both the Patriots and Saints wrapped up their 2015 training camps with a productive and entertaining two-hour practice session Thursday morning at the Greenbrier resort. The two clubs will now prepare to pack up and make the journey further south to New Orleans for Saturday night's preseason tilt in the Superdome.

In what looked like New England's most crisp effort of the summer, quarterback Tom Brady and tight end Rob Gronkowski put on a passing clinic against the New Orleans defense in the 11-on-11 team periods throughout the morning. Whether it was in the open field or down in the red zone, the Saints had no answer for the Brady-Gronkowski combo, much to the delight of the large crowd of spectators in attendance, most of whom were Patriots fans. The display was reminiscent of last summer in Richmond, Va., when Brady picked apart the Washington Redskins defense in joint practices.

It got so one-sided that at one point during a 7-on-7 period, Brady rolled out to his right in the red zone, going about half-speed because all of his receivers were well covered by New Orleans. Gronk, near the goal line, was actually tangled up with a defender and fell to the ground. Brady faked like he was going to run for the end zone and Gronk's defender left him on the ground to pursue Brady (again, at half speed). Brady pulled up like an NBA player and pulled the trigger on a jump-shot pass to Gronkowski, who was still lying on his back as he made the catch. Fans erupted in cheers.

Here's what else caught our eye on the final day of camp:

…The absentee list grew two players bigger for the Patriots Thursday when wide receiver Brian Tyms and running back Eric Kettani failed to suit up. Add them to the 16-players who didn't take part Wednesday at the Greenbrier.

…Practice began with a special teams focus on punting. New England trotted out Danny Amendola, Jonathan Krause, Chris Harper, and Patrick Chung to take reps as return men.

…Punter Ryan Allen took a while to get his leg loose. His first several punts were short and didn't turn over, something we're not used to seeing from the strong-legged Allen. Once he got into a rhythm, though, he was booming the ball and backing up the Saints' returners.

…The o-line continues to struggle through attrition. Marcus Cannon was the latest player to incur an injury. He was escorted off the field with about an hour to go and never returned to practice. It's unclear what his issue was.

…During the 1-on-1 pass rush/protection drill with the offensive and defensive lines, Rob Ninkovich and Jabaal Sheard appeared to be the most effective Patriots against the Saints o-line.

…On the other field, right tackle Sebastian Vollmer looked very good when the Patriots o-line faced the New Orleans d-line. He was stonewalling nearly every Saints defender he took on, using great technique to deny his opponent from getting into the backfield.

…In the same drill period, left tackle Nate Solder at one point used a powerful right hook to the shoulder pads of d-end Cameron Jordan. The impact made a thunderous sound and knocked Jordan off-balance, which Solder then exploited by driving him to the ground.

…At the end of this intense drill period, the Saints d-line and Patriots o-line gathered in a circle together, putting their hands in the center and doing a group "breakdown" chant to close out their work. It was a nice show of sportsmanship and respect between the two groups – a marked contrast from other NFL joint practices around the league this summer that have featured violent confrontations between opposing players and teams.

…Only once did another close to a skirmish flare up between the Patriots and Saints, and that was during a special teams period. Duron Harmon, serving as a vice, had to be separated from Saints gunner Willie Snead, who threw Daxston Swanson to the ground in a not-so-gentle way. Harmon took exception and got in the face of Snead, but the incident amounted to little more than a minor shouting match that quickly subsided as the two players headed to their respective sidelines.

…Gronkowski wasn't Brady's only reliable target Thursday. He spread the ball around to a number of receivers, including Josh Boyce and Matthew Slater, both of whom caught long touchdown passes from TB12 during 11-on-11 action.

…Former Patriots, now Saints tight end Benjamin Watson made a nice catch from Drew Brees down the right sideline when New Orleans took over on offense. Watson blew past safety Patrick Chung, who then got spun around and never saw the ball coming as Watson made an nice leaping-backwards catch.

…Brees later found WR Brandin Cooks deep in the left corner of the end zone after the receiver had beaten CB Bradley Fletcher on the long pattern.

…Brees received a portion of comeuppance a few plays later, though, when reserve Patriots d-lineman Casey Walker found his way into the backfield and would have absolutely mauled the QB had the action been in a real game. Walker simple put both hands in the air when he got to Brees and sidestepped him to allow the play to continue for the sake of practice reps.

…Left corner Malcolm Butler recovered nicely from his struggles a day earlier. He was more competitive overall in drills and team periods. Butler's best play came in a red zone series when Brees was targeting WR Marques Colston on a fade pattern. Butler read Brees' eyes all the way, kept his arms within reach of Colston to make sure he knew where the receiver was, and timed his jump perfectly to punch the ball away just as Colston was about to secure it. Great play by Butler to prevent the touchdown.

…Slater wasn't just catching TD passes Thursday. As a gunner on the punt team, he raced downfield on one rep and caught Allen's spiraling punt as it came down at the 2-yard line. Slater's speed and a great move to elude the Saints vice men put him in position to make the play.

…For the second straight day, golfer Bubba Watson, NBA legend/logo inspiration Jerry West, and  Patriots Hall of Fame receiver Troy Brown took in practice, and the trio was joined by another local legend: former Patriots wideout Randy Moss. The Rand, W.V. native spent time before practice chatting with West and Belichick, then had a lengthy man-to-man chat on the sideline with Brady toward the end of practice. Both of them looked happy to see one another as they smiled and laughed throughout their catch-up session.

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