The Patriots were in full pads for the second straight day and fifth time overall on Friday, and while the execution level wasn't at its highest, it was probably the most physical practice of camp.
Unlike most days where there is little to no tackling of any sort, Friday featured a few instances where ball carriers were taken to the ground – whether by design or not. The 1-on-1 tackling drills saw their share of takedowns early while the day wound down with some solid goal line work that included live contact through the whistle.
On more than one occasion there were some instances that caught the eye. One came when Rob Gronkowski, who has been the best player in camp thus far, absolutely buried defensive end Mark Anderson on a sweep. The tight end locked in on the newcomer, who was signed earlier in the day, knocking him back several yards before finishing with a pancake block that drew some cheers – both from the crowd and his offensive teammates. Gronk rose to his feet enthusiastically before receiving kudos from his fellow tight ends and receivers.
Anderson, who spent most of his five seasons with Chicago, is known as a pass rusher who has difficulty defending the run. That scouting report was accurate on this play as BenJarvus Green-Ellis was easily able to get the edge.
During the goal line work, Dan Connolly executed a terrific kick out block on Jerod Mayo, opening the door for Green-Ellis to sneak into the end zone off right tackle. Later, rookie Stevan Ridley was forced to bounce an attempt wide and barely found the pylon after stepping out of a Devin McCourty tackle attempt. Ridley scored but it was the kind of decision that rarely works in the NFL, especially around the goal line and it appeared as if offensive coordinator Bill O'Brien reminded the rookie of this following the run. As if on cue, Ridley tried to bounce out wide again the next play and was swallowed by safety Patrick Chung.
Interestingly, the offensive line included rookie first-round pick Nate Solder at left tackle next Logan Mankins. Connolly and Sebastian Vollmer comprised the right side with Dan Koppen in the middle. Solder has his moments, effectively slamming down on some running plays and showing quick feet to get to the second level on occasion. He also struggled at times, once in particular when Aaron Lavarias, an undrafted free agent defensive end out of Rutgers, got the corner on him as Solder lunged awkwardly in vain. Lavarias, incidentally, performed well while working with a group of normal starters.
Overall, the execution level wasn't great but added physicality made the work enjoyable to watch.
Special teams coach Scott O'Brien met with the media prior to practice and touched on a variety of subjects. One was Stephen Gostkowski and the kicker's slow indoctrination into camp thus far. Coming off surgery to repair a torn quadriceps, Gostkowski hadn't done much kicking through the early days in camp, but lately that's changed.
"We're just taking Stephen day-to-day," O'Brien said. "He's like everybody else. He's going out there; he's working on his technique. He's getting a feel for it, he's evaluating himself and we're evaluating him when he's out there."
Gostkowski began kicking some field goals earlier in the week and did so again on Friday, but has thus far yet to kick off – in front of the watchful eyes of the media at least.
"Not with team. He has not. He has done it on his own," O'Brien said. "We'll progress into that when his schedule allows him to do it and we should be fine. [We're] starting him off with the field goals because we want to get him back in the timing, the operation of everything. When he goes to kick off it's just him and the ball, and he's got his rhythm. He can do that on his own. The priority was to get him back and evaluate where he is at, but [also] to give him with the timing, [to] get him back with the [long] snapper, get him back with the holder and start with that."
Thus far the program has been similar to that of a pitcher in baseball working on a pitch count, but Gostkowski stopped short of making that comparison.
"I'm just trying to get healthy enough to be out on the field every day," Gostkowski said. "You're kind of on a [pitch count] every year, maybe a little tighter now because of the injury. We kick three times a week and then play a game. During camp you kick every day so you have to be careful. They have a set number they want you to do every year.
"Strength-wise I feel great; it's more conditioning and making sure I don't get tired and sore. It feels pretty ood right now but it's a day-to-day thing. I don't feel different doing it."
Comings and goings
Anderson has had some success as a pass rusher during his five-year career, mostly when he had 12 sacks during his rookie year in 2006, but he's managed only 13.5 in the four following seasons. He fell out of the Bears rotation last year and was released Oct. 5. He hooked on in Houston and played 11 games for the Texans with two starts. In 77 career games (20 starts) the 6-4, 255-pound Anderson has 25.5 sacks, 154 tackles and five forced fumbles. The team released defensive lineman Marlon Favorite to make room for Anderson on the roster.
O'Brien was asked about linebacker Rob Ninkovich, who has handled much of the long snapping duties in camp as Matt Katula missed some time before returning for yesterday's practice. Could Ninkovich handle the role on a full-time basis and thus save the team an all-important roster spot?
"I think it's [too] early to tell," O'Brien said. "I think Rob does a great job for us. To me, he is worth his weight in gold. When you're putting a team together you are looking for positional players that can do other things for you. When it becomes a skill like snapping the ball, it's great. It has kind of worked out for him to snap this early this much, coming off of an injury. So he's still working on his mechanics and techniques. [Long snapping] has really helped him but that evaluation would have to come down the road. Having him just on the team as a starter or as a backup is great."
There were four notable additions to the list of those not practicing. Albert Haynesworth, Mike WrightandBrandon Spikes all missed practice and none was seen working out among the nine players in shorts. That group included Ras-I Dowling, Brandon Tate (who missed his first practice), James Sanders, Josh Barrett, Brandon Deaderick, Kyle Hix, Matt Light, Myron Pryor and Ron Brace. Rookie Shane Vereen, Kevin Faulk, Ryan Wendell and Eric Kettani were also not present for the practice. Rookie Marcus Cannon, who remains on NFI but has generally been working out on the field, was not seen either.
Who's hot: Taylor Price – The second-year receiver continues to get open and make plays. He caught a deep ball along the sideline during 7-on-7 work and later made a terrific grab of an errant Brian Hoyer pass during team work. He nearly turned in a circus catch along the sideline later in that drill but the official on hand ruled the pass had hit the ground and called it incomplete. To be fair, he also dropped a punt and had to scramble to retrieve it.
Who's not: Brandon Tate – Some perceive Price and Tate to be battling for a roster spot. While Price continues to excel, Tate missed the workout for undisclosed reasons and hasn't really done anything to distinguish himself when he's been in uniform. In terms of pure wide receiver ability, Price has been the better player.
Play of the day – The play may not have involved any key players for the 2011 season but Hoyer's bomb to Jeremy Ross was a thing of beauty. Ross went streaking down the right sideline as Ross Ventrone chased just behind. Hoyer's pass dropped perfectly over Ross' shoulder and the wideout grabbed it just inside the pylon for the touchdown.