There's something about the sounds of players slamming into sleds and the pounding of pads that separates football from other sports, and with the Patriots in pads for the first time this summer on a humid Sunday morning in Foxborough, it made this workout different from the previous two.
While the nearly two-and-a-half-hour practice wasn't the most physical we've seen, there were periods when plenty of contact was seen. The Patriots predictably spent more time on the running game, including some late goal-line action, and also conducted a lot of individual drills pitting offense against defense. Overall it was a rather spirited practice with some good moments for each side.
That said, here are one man's observations from the team's third practice of training camp:
-The Patriots remained without the same six players who have missed practice thus far. Wide receivers Julian Edelman (PUP/foot) and Mark Harrison (NFI/foot), offensive lineman Nick McDonald (PUP/unknown), defensive lineman Cory Grissom, tight end Rob Gronkowski (PUP/arm, back) and defensive lineman Armond Armstead (NFI/illness) all remained out of uniform. Edelman, McDonald and Gronkowski were all spotted in shorts.
Safety Devin McCourty also continues to wear his red, non-contact jersey, although he appeared to take all his reps during team periods and exhibits no limitations from his offseason shoulder surgery.
-Guard Dan Connolly does not appear on any injury lists but he's clearly been hampered by his offseason shoulder surgery. He did not take regular reps during the first two days of practice and on Sunday he didn't appear to take any. Evidently he hasn't been cleared for contact and while Marcus Cannon took his place at right guard, Connolly spent time on a different practice field running sprints and doing various conditioning work.
Also, tackle Sebastian Vollmer has not been a full-time player either. He started most drills at right tackle but was replaced for the second rep by Will Svitek. Vollmer underwent offseason knee surgery and appears to be taking it slowly in camp.
-Rookie wide receiver Kenbrell Thompkins has gotten a lot of opportunities thus far in camp and on Sunday he made the most of them. He beat Alfonzo Dennard deep on one rep and made a terrific catch on a pass from Ryan Mallett. He's been involved in a lot of the Patriots multiple-receiver sets with Aaron Dobson and Danny Amendola, and he's caught more than his share of throws from Tom Brady. He also ended practice by getting behind rookie Stephon Morris and catching a touchdown pass from Tim Tebow during a two-minute situation.
-With the pads on, the one-on-one drills kicked off in earnest on Sunday. The wide receivers and defensive backs had several spirited battles with members of each group having their moments. Aqib Talib was outstanding, as he locked horns with Amendola on several occasions and either re-routed him effectively or covered him tightly. Talib knocked a pass out of the receiver's hands on one play in a move similar to Sterling Moore's memorable strip of Baltimore's Lee Evans in the 2011 AFC title game. Kyle Arrington similarly knocked one out of Amendola's hands in the same drill, causing the wideout to react angrily. The two drops were uncharacteristic of anything we've seen from Amendola thus far.
-Early in practice the punters were taking direct snaps from Danny Aiken and Mike Zupancic, ostensibly to work on potential fakes. Zoltan Mesko and Ryan Allen alternated moving from their normal punting position up under center, where the long snappers delivered direct snaps.
-Sticking with Talib, it was interesting to hear the cover talk favorably about Dobson and Thompkins following practice. Both rookies did a nice job of getting off the line against the physical press style that is omnipresent during these drills, and Talib was impressed. "That's something you either have or you don't and they have it" was how Talib put it.
-Fans were treated to a few guests at practice. Long-time favorite Troy Brown was on the field throughout the session and interacted with several players and coaches. Usually when a former player takes in practice he does so from in between the fields. However, Brown was actively involved on the field at times, spending several moments talking with Amendola before a drill. Brown looks to be in fighting shape, by the way. Wonder if he's planning a comeback given the lack of proven depth at wide receiver.
-In addition, legendary actor Robert Duvall was in town shooting his latest movie and took in practice. Duvall is a big Patriots fan and was a guest of Robert Kraft. He took the time to conduct an interview with "Patriots Today" that will be available on patriots.com.
-Also, former tight end Christian Fauria was in the media tent watching practice. Fauria will be part of the new broadcast team for Patriots preseason games this summer, joining Dan Roche and Matt Chatham. Incidentally, Andy Hart and I also will be part of the new team as we unveil some changes to the coverage this summer.
-Brady worked on his throwing mechanics at one point with equipment assistant John Jastremski holding his left shoulder in while throwing. Perhaps the quarterback was concerned about his front shoulder opening too soon and wanted to nip any potential flaw in the bud.
-The special teams work consisted of the kickoff team. McCourty, Tavon Wilson, Niko Koutouvides, Marquice Cole, Nate Ebner, Jamie Collins, Matthew Slater, Dane Fletcher, Brandon Bolden and Ras-I Dowling manned the first unit with Stephen Gostkowski from left to right. The returners in the drill included Leon Washington with LeGarrette Blount, Lavelle Hawkins with Stevan Ridley and Thompkins with Josh Boyce.
-The first team period saw an offensive line consisting of, from left to right, Nate Solder, Logan Mankins, Ryan Wendell, Cannon and Vollmer with Svitek replacing Vollmer often. The second group had Elvis Fisher, Tyronne Green, Josh Kline, Markus Zusevics and Svitek. Zusevics is 6-5 and 300 pounds and spent his abbreviated rookie season at tackle but appears to be working more inside thus far in camp.
-During that same period the defense featured an interesting wrinkle when switching to the nickel. Dont'a Hightower came off the field while Dennard replaced him and Arrington moved from outside on the right into the slot. Hightower is considered an active, athletic linebacker with the versatility to rush the passer and drop into coverage but he left the field while Brandon Spikes remained. Perhaps Bill Belichick is simply experimenting with his personnel early in camp but Spikes' reputation as more of a run-stuffer than Hightower makes the move worth noting.
Also of note, McCourty worked with Tavon Wilson at safety during a team period while Adrian Wilson and Steve Gregory were paired on the opposite field. Rookie Duron Harmon replaced Tavon Wilson at one point, but it was interesting to see the second-year safety lining up with McCourty,
-Ridley had some trouble holding onto the football on Sunday and ran a pair of laps as a result. The first came on a play where he appeared to run the wrong way, causing an awkward handoff exchange from Brady. The ball popped in the air and was recovered by Jerod Mayo. The second was much more concerning. It came during a late goal-line drill when he tried to find paydirt off left tackle. Vince Wilfork strung the play wide and eventually stripped him before recovering the fumble himself. Ridley's ball security issues remain a problem.
-Defensive tackle Anthony Rashad White and Fisher both were sent for a lap after jumping early during a team period. It appeared that White jumped the gun but perhaps Fisher drew him from his left tackle spot.
-There have been some different drills seen thus far in camp and we saw a couple more on Sunday. The first featured a slight twist of the normal strip drill where a defender tries to pry the ball away from a ball carrier. Instead of simply trying to hold the ball, the runners were instructed to "stumble" forward and put their off hand to the ground to maintain their balance while also keeping the ball tucked tight to the body. Oftentimes a stumbling runner tends to hold the ball away from his body and thus offers a perfect opportunity from a defender to knock it loose.
The second new drill came when receivers caught short flips from running backs, split through a pair of coaches/ball boys slamming them with blocking pads and then going one-on-one in the open field on a defender. Collins came up with a big play when he stripped tight end Daniel Fells.
-Despite the fumble, Fells continues to build on a solid start to camp. Andy has taken to calling him "The Big Smooth" (and I can't disagree) based on the effortless way he seems to get open and catch the ball. He did so often again on Sunday, a day after Belichick praised him for his strong work this spring.
-While Dobson has opened eyes with some strong days to open camp, his fellow rookie draft pick Josh Boyce hasn't been as visible. On Sunday, however, he turned in a terrific play by snaring a deep ball behind rookie corner Logan Ryan. Boyce got slightly behind Ryan and seemed to bait the corner in Randy Moss fashion by waiting till the last moment to make the over-the-shoulder catch. He was more active on Sunday but is still working his way into the mix at this point.
-During a late team period, the offense featured a four-receiver look (two-by-two) with Shane Vereen working in the slot to the right. He ran a quick out and Brady fired him a pass that was low and outside. The running back showcased his receiver skills by making a tough diving catch.
-Goal-line work is always a camp highlight and Sunday was no exception. Going against a defense that included a front of Tommy Kelly, Justin Francis, Vince Wilfork and Marcus Forston, the offense was able to score touchdowns on three of four attempts. The lone stumble was the aforementioned Ridley fumble, which came a play after the third-year back found the end zone on a run up the middle. The second and third TDs came from Blount, who first went in off right tackle and then over the left side on the next play. None of the three scores came easy, but a nice first step for the offensive line.
-Gostkowski got some field goal work in late in practice and appeared to hit on five of his seven attempts. It was tell to tell with any certainty from our vantage point but he appeared to miss from about 36 yards from the right hash and later from 47 yards. He five connections came from between 30-44 yards.
-Practice closed with three two-minute drills as Brady and Mallett operated simultaneously on each field. Brady hit on short throws to Amendola and Michael Hoomanawanui before finding Dobson on a deep in-cut. But his drive ended after that play when he tried to hit Dobson on a deep go route down the left sideline, only to be picked by Arrington.
Tebow followed Brady and appeared to be going nowhere after a short hookup with Hoomanawanui and a bad incompletion following another lengthy scramble. After two Ridley runs Tebow looked deep and found Thompkins for a touchdown down the left sideline, drawing a huge roar from the crowd.
-The Patriots will be back at it tomorrow night inside Gillette Stadium for a practice that is open to season-ticket holders and Foxborough residents only. It is a ticketed event, therefore only those with the proper ticket will be allowed inside to watch the workout, which is set to run from 7 p.m.-9 p.m. Those of you looking to head to Foxborough but do not have tickets might want to be on hand for the Hall of Fame induction ceremonies for Tedy Bruschi and Gil Santos, which are set to begin at 5 p.m. in the plaza outside The Hall at Patriot Place presented by Raytheon.