Players and coaches alike got their first taste of live game-simulated action Thursday night in a special practice session held at Foxboro Stadium.
After stretching and some seven-on-seven drills, Head Coach Bill Belichick ran his team through a scripted series of situations that players and coaches had to react to. Only Belichick, the ball boys and down marker operators and the scoreboard operator knew what situations would be called out in which order.
The purpose of the workout was to test all involved in reacting and communicating on a moments noticed. There were referees on hand to call penalties if needed, and the play clocks were running to make all plays get off in timely fashion.
"We were trying to tighten up the whole operation here tonight," Belichick said. "I think we're off to a good start. The guys always enjoy coming into the stadium and getting into a bit more of a game atmosphere.
"You see what a player can take from the practice field and put into the game situation, and that's all that really matters. A lot of the things we did in practice carried over, some of them didn't. We have to make the players understand that without executing it on the field, it doesn't do us any good."
Each of the four groups ran one time down the field. The simulation began with the first offense working against the second defense. Drew Bledsoe opened with an incomplete pass intended for Troy Brown, but he wound up completing 5-of-7 passes. He hit on all three of his third-down attempts, two of which would have been good for first downs. Kevin Faulk caught a pass as the third-down back, and Bledsoe hit Torrance Small twice.
Bledsoe also connected with Brown twice for what would have been first downs, but his only try for the end zone was incomplete intended for Bert Emanuel.
For Bledsoe, the night was a good starting point for a team looking to recover from a bad 5-11 campaign in 2000.
"The guys who were here last year were obviously very embarrassed by what we weren't able to accomplish," Bledsoe said. "We're driven to improve upon that, and the guys who have been brought in have picked up on that attitude as well."
The running game looked sharp for the first string, despite a makeshift line that rotated eight players for all the offensive groups. The only consistent guys were left tackle Kenyatta Jones, center Grey Ruegamer and right tackle Greg Robinson-Randall. Guards Drew Inzer, Josh Rawlings, Sale Isaia and Adam Davis rotated. Grant Williams worked at both tackle spots with the lower groups.
For the first group, fullback Marc Edwards ran for about 5 yards on his only carry. J.R. Redmond was met by Bryan Cox at the line of scrimmage on his first attempt, but he responded with carries of about 8 and 6 yards on his next two touches.
"Tonight felt real good. I've been looking forward to this since the end of last year," Redmond said. "Just to get started while feeling healthy was nice. It felt real good to get out there and see things at full speed with the benefit of having been through every day of camp so far. We got an opportunity to simulate game situations in terms of being on the field, working different personnel groups in and out, calling plays and having to make the right reads."
The first defense had its way with the second offense, led by Damon Huard. The first three plays consisted of two short runs by Antowain Smith and an incomplete pass to Small in a three-receiver set. Linebacker Tedy Bruschi stopped Smith behind the line on the fourth play, a pitch to the left side.
Huard tried to hit David Patten with a deep ball down the right sideline, but the pass was underthrown. His next pass was batted at the line by rookie Richard Seymour in a third-down situation, and Terrell Buckley was able to defend a pass intended for Curtis Jackson. On Huard's final play, Seymour and Anthony Pleasant broke through the line and got to him for a sack, though the quarterbacks were not hit in the drill.
Next up were the third regulars for both sides of the ball. Tom Brady started with the third offense with Faulk in the backfield. The first three plays saw Faulk get stopped at the line, Brady throw incomplete to tight end Johnny McWilliams and Brady get sacked by Mike Vrabel in a dime situation.
Brady did connect on a mid-range out pattern with Jackson on his last attempt before Michael Bishop subbed in. Bishop connected on his first pass, a rollout to McWilliams for a nice gain. However the quarterback struggled from there, twice overthrowing Charles Johnson, once in the end zone and once on an out pattern. Bishop did connect with Ronney Daniels on a short pass, but the play was covered by safety Tony George. Bishop and Daniels also connected on a touchdown pass.
One player who stood out on the third unit was running back Walter Williams, who handled the third-down back role. He had several draw runs, including one up the middle for a 23-yard touchdown.
The fourth groups worked last, again with Bishop and Brady both getting snaps. This time Bishop opened and hit a couple short passes, one to Tony Simmons and one to fullback Jeff Paulk. His third throw was intercepted by linebacker Matt Chatham, who made a diving grab.
Brady came back in and handed off twice for no gains. The first was to fullback Patrick Pass, and the second to Williams, who was met at the hole by a hard-charging Hakim Akbar.
Brady hit Paulk with a pass to the flat and then connected with Shockmain Davis over the middle. Davis was stripped by cornerback Ray Hill, but was lucky to fall on the ball.
In special teams work, kicker Adam Vinatieri made all four of his tries, while rookie Owen Pochman had one miss. Punter Brad Costello muffed a good snap from Lonie Paxton. The punting and kickoff drills were not done at full speed.
All in all, Belichick was pleased with what he saw. There were three penalties called in about 50 plays, two false starts and one delay of game.
The team will have just one short practice Friday at 11 a.m. After that the players will get their first time off thus far. Barring a schedule change, there will be no practices held Saturday.