The Patriots will put on pads for the first time on Monday, and to prepare for that Bill Belichick put his troops through the most spirited practice of the week. The energy was high throughout, and that intensified during both 7-on-7 and full team work later in practice.
It was our first chance to see the offense and defense work together and against each other for any length of time this summer, and the competition level not coincidentally rose as a result.
There was plenty of talking coming from both sides following every play, each unit celebrating their successes with seemingly more vigor with each passing rep. It was enjoyable to watch, and definitely showed the team is gearing for the next step.
On the field, the defense appeared to get the better of things, both in 7-on7s and 11-on-11 activities, which both included down-and-distance work. The secondary figures to be one of the Patriots strong suits, and with a bunch of veterans to lean on in coverage it makes sense that the group would get the better of things in the early going.
Brian Hoyer, Cam Newton and Jarrett Stidham all took reps but found few opportunities to establish much rhythm. Aside from some occasional shallow crossing routes that resulted in small gains, there weren't many completions to be had in the 7-on-7s. Ja'Whaun Bentley made a nice play to break up one pass, and later rookie Cassh Maluia did a great job to prevent a Ryan Izzo touchdown when he stripped the tight end down the seam on a pass from Stidham. Maluia made a terrific play by getting his hand between Izzo's near the back of the end zone and wrestled the ball away.
Once the full team work began, things heated up. Coaches communicated via headsets and there was a good deal of substituting throughout. Belichick set up and number of situations, mostly in the red zone, and again the defense seemed to get the better if the play.
The McCourty twins were eager to let the offense know after each incomplete pass, and the group really celebrated an interception by rookie Myles Bryant, who caught an overthrow in the end zone toward the end of the period.
But the offense had its moments too, particularly when N'Keal Harry used his big, strong frame to high-point a pass away from cornerback J.C. Jackson for a touchdown. Harry simply outmuscled Jackson in the corner of the end zone and ripped the ball out of the air. It was the type of play Patriots fans are hoping to see a lot of from Harry in 2020, and one that he made look easy.
That led to some hooting and hollering followed by a chest bump between Harry and Newton. A few plays later, Newton was celebrating once again after Stidham hit a crossing Devin Ross for a touchdown. Ross got a step on Stephon Gilmore on the play, leading to a Billy "White Shoes" Johnson-like reaction from Newton. It should be noted that Newton was not the quarterback for either play, but that didn't lessen his competitiveness and willingness to give it to his defensive teammates.
Overall it was an enjoyable period to watch as each side seemed to enjoy the added level of competitiveness. When practice ended a short time later, the defense came together and let loose with some more extended celebrations.
Monday will feature the first contact of camp, but until then here are some observations from Sunday's two-hour practice.
*The extra energy and enthusiasm was not limited to the full team work. It was right at the start of practice as the players transitioned from some walkthrough work at the outset to their calisthenics and warm-up routine. As players on both offense and defense ran to their respective sides of the fields, some primal screams were heard echoing throughout the area, and ultimately that extra juice seemed like a foreshadowing of things to come.
*Linebackers worked on techniques to strip the ball, dropping in coverage and closing on their teammates as they caught short passes. Once the ball was secure the tacklers would close and then strip the ball from behind. We've seen those techniques by Patriots tacklers often, leading to many takeaways over the years.
*The defensive backs worked on tracking would-be interceptions on deep balls over their outside shoulder. Some of the throws proved difficult to hold on to but Justin Bethel made a terrific grab and managed to get his feet in bounds just inside the pylon at the goal line on one rep. Players who weren't as fortunate to complete the picks were seen dropping to the ground for some pushups.
*Matthew Slater was his typically busy self during practice, getting some individual work in while the offense and defense operated on the fields. Slater practiced his gunner techniques against Joe Houston, the team's new assistant special teams coach who was wearing a blocking pad. Then later Slater worked with Joe Cardona as the two took reps refining their tackling techniques on the circular pad. Bethel later joined Slater as they continued to operate against Houston in their gunner work.
*About midway through practice the team split into three groups with Newton, Stidham and Hoyer all operating behind separate offensive lines. The personnel was split up throughout with tight ends, receivers and running backs in different groups, with a different emphasis on each. One had fullbacks and tight ends, another had multiple receiver sets and the third had more of a traditional mix of both.
*Rex Burkhead looked strong throughout the four days of practice over the past week. There was a lot of running game work and he showed great burst on his carries, shooting through holes and making sharp jump cuts in the secondary. He also caught plenty of passes during the week and looked quick doing that as well. Of course the players aren't in pads and with no contact it's always tough to evaluate the running game but that doesn't take away from Burkhead's apparent speed and explosiveness.
*We got our first chance to see rookie Justin Rohrwasser do some kicking this week. Rohrwasser began with some kickoffs but he also booted plenty of field goals as well. He closed practice with about a half dozen kicks toward the skinny goal posts at the far end of the left field. His kicks appeared to have good velocity and his strong leg was evident. He connected on a pair of 48-yarders to end things.
*The Patriots will be back at it Monday morning and in full pads for the first time. The remainder of the media is also expected to be on hand for the official start of training camp in Foxborough in what should be an interesting day. Belichick is set to meet with reporters via video call prior to practice.