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Opportunity knocks for backups; Monday notes

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WR Sam Aiken

One man's misfortune can represent another's opportunity, and for many of the Patriots backup players, training camp has developed into just such a scenario.

Bill Belichick's team took the practice field with 20 players out of uniform on Monday morning. Normally that would be bad news for a team trying to prepare itself for the preseason opener in just three days, but on this day it gave some meaningful practice time to several Patriots looking to establish themselves in New England.

Pretty much anywhere you looked on Monday one could find a backup player lining up with the regulars. Matt Cassel ran the show on offense with Tom Bradygetting the day off. Antwain Spann took advantage of *Rodney Harrison's and James Sanders' absences and lined up at safety alongside Brandon Meriweather. And *Le Kevin Smith *joined Vince Wilfork and Ty Warren up front on the Patriots defense as *Richard Seymour **ook another day off.

Further down the list was Gary Guytonworking next to rookie first-round pick Jerod Mayo at inside linebacker as *Tedy Bruschi skipped the workout. Even *Ray Ventrone, the safety-turned-wideout, benefited as* Rady Moss *nd *Wes Welker *wee among the missing.

Spann has flopped back and forth between the roster and practice squad during his first two years with the team. He's spent most of his time on special teams and is listed as a cornerback on the roster. But during camp he's most often been sighted at safety, where he's shown good instincts and a physical edge to his play.

"Camp is going pretty good," Spann said following practice. "I've had the opportunity to come out here and show the team and coaches what I can do. So far it's going pretty well. It's a learning experience for me since it's the first year I've played safety in the league. I've hit a couple of bumps in the road but as long as I continue to get better every day I feel pretty good."

During Saturday's practice inside the Dana-Farber Field House, Spann was patrolling the back of the secondary during some situational work as part of a dime package. Chad Jackson had come open in the back corner of the end zone and appeared poised to catch a touchdown, but Spann closed quickly and prevented the completion, something he's done plenty of during the summer.

"I would say he has played more defensively in this camp and even a little bit in the spring," Belichick said. "He's been a contributor for us in the kicking game and he has played at times defensively at both corner, safety and also in the slot position so he has some position versatility. How all that will go, we will just have to see. He has gotten more work there and I think he is certainly working hard at it."

Smith also felt the extra reps were beneficial toward his development. The third-year defensive lineman served as Vince Wilfork's backup at nose tackle at times last year but has moved to end thus far in 2008. But Smith has been around long enough to know that Belichick will expect him to be ready to handle whatever job is necessary.

"I just want to give them the best product possible. I want to be as fast as I can be, as strong as I can be as, quick as I can be," Smith said. "What they decide to use that for is up to them. I want to be the best athlete physically and mentally as possible. I know that's the only way I'll make it on the field.

Monday wasn't Smith's first chance to operate with the first group. With Seymour getting periodic time off, the former Nebraska star and 2006 sixth-round pick has filled several times and appreciates the opportunities.

"It's always a chance for me to get reps and get better and show them what I can do at a different spot," Smith said. "I know how they do things here. Right now I'm working outside but that could change at anytime. If they need someone inside, they'll expect me to know what I'm doing."

Baltimore plan

Belichick said the team began its work on the Ravens for Thursday's preseason opener at Gillette Stadium (7:30 p.m.). That preparation will continue in the evening session and into tomorrow, but the coach indicated that game planning for the first game isn't as extensive as it will be going forward. But he did admit that he and the team are ready for a different challenge.

"[Playing a game] is the next step for us. We have had the spring camps and we are now into our 16th practice of training camp," Belichick said. "I think we are about at that stage where we worked on a lot of fundamentals. We put in our basic stuff, we tried to bring in some situational football and put it together. Now we need to go out and play a game and in game type conditions.

"The contact, the situational football, the going up against different type of players and a different scheme that we will face [rather] than seeing ourselves out there on the practice field. I think we are ready to take that next step. I think we are all looking forward to it. It is part of the process of preparation for the season and we are just getting a little bit closer."

Belichick wouldn't get into specifics in terms of individual playing time but did say he expected to see plenty of players on the field. Likewise, his expectations for the game were general as well.

"I think I would like to see the team go out there and play competitively and play with a good level of execution," he said. "Whatever we experience out there, we will learn from. Hopefully, we can go out there and play competitively and execute things at a reasonably good level, given the amount of time we have put into it. We're certainly not going to be midseason form; we have a long way to go. But we will have some semblance of what it's supposed to look like. That would be nice."

Who's hot: Sam Aiken – Most thought of the free agent wideout as strictly a special teamer but Aiken has been impressive catching the football all summer. He's been open constantly and displayed strong hands both during drills and in live team action. He's also come as advertised on special teams, making an impact in a variety of ways.

Who's not: Shawn Crable –The third-round pick hasn't shown up much during practice but he did on Monday – and not in a good way. During a live goal line drill toward the end of practice, Crable lined up at outside linebacker with the second group. LaMont Jordan waltzed into the end zone easily off tackle and Crable got an earful from the coaches, as well as a quick bit of advice from Adalius Thomas. On the next play, Crable seemed to be focusing too much on the run and wasn't in position to disrupt Marcus Pollard's route and the tight end caught a touchdown right behind him.

Play of the day:The team lined up for some one-on-one tackling midway through the practice and Vince Redd delivered the most jarring hit of the day, leveling Heath Evans with a solid shoulder tackle along the sideline. The runners generally have an advantage in the drill and most made life difficult on the tacklers, but Redd's hit was the exception.

Extra points

In addition to the five players remaining on PUP – Mike Vrabel, Stephen Neal, Oliver Ross, Jarvis Greenand Mike Wright – the Patriots were without a host of players. That list included Brady, Bruschi, Seymour, Sanders, Harrison, Moss, Welker, *Jason Webster, Ellis Hobbs, Kyle Eckel, Sammy Morris, Ryan O'Callaghan, Matt Light,* Bnjamin Watson *and David Thomas. … *Logan Mankins **sent some time early in practice working on shotgun snaps. Belichick later said of Mankins: "athletically and as a football player, I think he could play anywhere." … The rookies were once again subjected to some adverse conditions as a hose made corraling the football difficult during a fumble drill. Having to deal with the wet conditions, as well as a dousing from the hose, the rookies tried to maintain possession of the ball. … The team's evening practice is a ticketed event for season-ticket holders only and will be held inside the stadium, from 6:30 p.m.-8:30 p.m.

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