The heat was back in Foxborough and so were the pads. Bill Belichick conducted the longest practice of the summer on Monday, working his troops for two-plus hours as temperatures climbed close to 90 degrees.
Belichick explained the importance of the week prior to practice when he talked about the need for the players to show improvement after being more comfortable with the assignments and the system.
"This is a big week for us, individually in units and collectively as a team, to really start to show some progress," Belichick said. "This will be multiple times, at least second, third, maybe fourth time through on a lot of things that we're doing, whether that's plays or techniques or situations, things like that. So, I think that the team is starting to feel comfortable with, again, whether it be their assignment or the way they're doing it or coaching points and so forth. Now, we really need to see those things start to come together this week on all levels in all three phases of the game, and also being able to manage and operate the game from a coaching standpoint.
"We all have a lot of work to do. I think we're in position, hopefully, to string some good days together and have a lot of little things start to fit together in the overall big picture. But, we'll see how that goes. That's where we need to be moving toward."
The first step toward that consistency was a bit uneven, although there were plenty of positive signs as well. Offensively Cam Newton continues to take the lead reps, but his performance on Monday wasn't as sharp as we've seen the last few practices.
With the pads on the speed dialed up a bit, the offense again had trouble consistently generating momentum. There were a few bright spots – such as a perfect timing route near the sideline from Newton to Julian Edelman – but things didn't not always run smoothly.
One such example came when Newton decided to keep the ball on a zone read play toward right tackle. The quarterback darted inside John Simon, who was setting the edge on the play, and made his way toward the secondary until he was slowed up.
Newton slowed his pace as the defenders made the would-be "tackle" but Chase Winovich reached in and knocked the ball loose before the play was over. Ball security is always a major point of emphasis at practice and Belichick sent Newton on a lap for his fumble.
When Newton returned he immediately replaced Brian Hoyer and immediately came up with a couple of impressive connections with N'Keal Harry. Both came in the red zone with Harry lined up against J.C. Jackson in what was a very physical battle.
Harry sold a quick slant in the end zone before cutting back toward the flag for a back shoulder fade. Newton's throw was perfect and Harry created enough separation from Jackson to make the twisting touchdown catch. Later at the opposite end of the field, the two hooked up again. This time Harry ran the slant and was able to shake loose from Jackson pretty decisively, grabbing another touchdown from Newton. Earlier in practice, Harry made a nice grab on a back shoulder route with Joejuan Williams in coverage.
The second-year wideout still has his moments where creating separation seems to be a problem but his efforts in the red zone late in practice offered a glimpse of his considerable athleticism and how it may be a big part of the Patriots offense this season.
Here are some observations from Monday's long practice.
*Practice began with some rookie initiations as Matthew Slater took the hose and watered down an area of the practice fields near the conditioning hills. All rookies, including first-year coaches, then dove through the puddles while carrying a football and being doused by the special teams captain. Lots of laughs emanated from the area before the team went to work.
*The Patriots added a pair of players to the roster and both were on the field and participated immediately. Kicker Nick Folk, who had two stints with the team in 2019, donned No. 6 and booted some field goals late in practice. Defensive lineman Michael Barnett, an undrafted rookie out of Georgia, wore No. 76 and also took reps on his first day. The 6-4, 304-pound Barnett lined up on the inside during pass rush/protection drills and went against David Andrews on one rep, getting decent push up the middle.
*There was an extended period of pass rush/protection work for the offensive and defensive linemen. First it was 1-on-1 and then two- and three-men games were added to the mix. The offensive line appeared to have a significant edge on the reps I watched. Isaiah Wynn handled Shilique Calhoun while Andrews got the better of Byron Cowart. Jermaine Eluemunor did a solid job against John Simon on another rep. Justin Herron also was impressive during this drill.
*Despite the strong play of the offensive line during the drill, when the 11-on-11 got going the group seemed to struggle keeping the pocket clean. Jarrett Stidham's reps were greatly disrupted at times when two and three blue shirts immediately shot into the backfield. Most of the struggles appeared to come when the backups were involved but it wasn't perfect when the frontline players were in the lineup either.
*Damiere Byrd tried to split a double team of Justin Bethel and rookie Myles Bryant early during the first team period but Newton's deep ball floated and was easily picked off by Bryant.
*Gunner Olszewski is enjoying a nice camp, showing significant improvement in terms of speed and quickness. He's been open as often as any receiver in camp. But he's also having a hard time holding onto the football, either dropping passes or fumbling after the catch. He was so frustrated with himself after a fumble near the goal line that he immediately shot to his feet and took a lap around both fields. Ball security with Olszewski is something to keep an eye on.
*Michael Jackson has shown some physicality at corner throughout camp. He's received a lot of reps and generally has been competitive in his coverage. He did a great job against Edelman during a 1-on-1 drill. At 6-1, 210 pounds he has some size to go with that physicality and perhaps can add some depth to an already deep and talented cornerback depth chart. He also should be a solid candidate to perform on special teams.
*Both kickers attempted three field goals toward the end of practice, all coming from roughly 33-46 yards from both hashes. Justin Rohrwasser went first and appeared to make two of his three attempts. His middle try from 40 yards and the right hash may have hooked outside the upright to the left, although it was tough to tell definitively from our vantage point. Folk followed with three kicks on his own and made them all. The veteran looked to be in midseason form as all three went right down the middle. Both made short field goals when asked to rush onto the field in a simulated, end-of-game/half situation.
*For the first time this summer there were some rookies available to the media after practice. Linebacker Josh Uche and tight ends Devin Asiasi and Dalton Keene spoke via video conference, as did Calhoun, Lawrence Guy and Rex Burkhead.
*The Patriots are scheduled to practice once again on Tuesday in Foxborough.