Given the unusual circumstances of the offseason and the elimination of the preseason this summer, the idea of teams conducting scrimmages seemed more realistic in 2020 than in previous years. Many clubs around the league have gone in that direction, and the Patriots did so on Thursday – to an extent.
While Bill Belichick conducted the practice in a fashion that was far closer to actual football than what we normally see during a typical daily practice, it wasn't full-blown scrimmaging either. There was contact up front and some physicality between defensive backs and receivers, but there was no live tackling. In essence, what took place on Thursday was more of the multiple 11-on-11 periods we normally see each day all were conducted consecutively.
There was one added simulation to the exercise, and that involved the presence of officials and live clock situations. Four men in stripes were on hand to dole out some penalties as the offense and defense went at it for almost the entirety of the two-hour workout. There were some occasional hiccups with a couple of delay of game penalties, but for the most part the plays were run at an acceptable tempo and two sides exhibited some spirited play.
Depending on one's perspective, there was some good news and bad news. Once again the offense appeared to have some struggles, especially as the practice continued. On the positive side, the defense was active and the secondary continued its strong play all summer.
Cam Newton directed the attack at the start. The first play featured fireworks as Damien Harris took a handoff and sprinted 80 yards for a touchdown. Jason McCourty tried to chase him down and knock the ball loose, but Harris crossed the goal line as the corner's backside punch arrived and the second-year back held onto the ball anyway.
Now, it's unclear how many yards Harris would have gained under live game conditions, but he shot through a sizable hold between Joe Thuney and David Andrews on the left side and was into the secondary untouched. At minimum it would have been a nice pickup on first down to get things started.
Newton built off that early momentum and made a couple of solid throws. He found Devin Ross on a deep cross for a nice pickup, and capped the drive with a slant to James White for the touchdown. Both throws were solid but each made terrific diving catches in the process.
In between Harris' run and White's catch things weren't as smooth. Newton felt the pocket collapse on one play and hurriedly tried to unload a pass near the sideline. Terrence Brooks picked it off for what would have been a pick-six, but it appeared as if the play was blown dead for a would-be sack.
Pressure on the quarterbacks was a theme throughout, as Newton, Jarrett Stidham and Brian Hoyer all felt the heat at various times. Some of that pressure came with some of the younger, less experienced offensive linemen in the game but it wasn't ideal for the offense.
Stidham took the reins from there and didn't fare any better. He tried to hit Gunner Olszewski on and out that failed to connect, then wasn't on the same page as N'Keal Harry when the ball went to the outside and the receiver stayed inside. Later Harry had trouble fending off a double team on a deep ball that fell incomplete.
Typically the ball moved down the field as directed by Belichick, regardless of the result of the play. Once in the red zone Stidham tried to scramble and find Rex Burkhead near the front pylon but Joejuan Williams made a terrific diving play the break it up.
Newton returned and found Julian Edelman on a nice deep in-cut that would have picked up about 20 yards. A screen to White and another to Mohamed Sanu found modest yardage as the offense showed some signs of continuity. But from there things mostly bogged down.
Hoyer was a tad high a deep seam route intended for Ryan Izzo, who was open on the play. Izzo has shown the ability to get down the seam throughout the summer. Hoyer finished off that drive by showing nice patience and waiting for Olszewski to clear while crossing the end zone under the goal post for a touchdown.
Sony Michel turned in a nice touchdown run on a sweep from inside the 10 to cap a Stidham drive. Michel made a nice cut as he headed toward the sideline and worked his way inside the flow to pay dirt.
The special teams got plenty of reps as well. Jake Bailey kicked off in each direction before the offense took over. The second series saw the kick return team take the reps, and the same thing occurred with the punting units.
One bright spot was the work of the kickers. Justin Rohrwasser and Nick Folk attempted field goals after the drives and were quite successful. On kicks ranging in distance from 43 to 53 yards, Folk was perfect while Rohrwasser's only miscue hit the left upright from 46.
As has been the case most of camp, the hurry-up drives to close things out weren't overly fruitful. Both Newton and Stidham could find nothing downfield and were forced to spike the ball to set up 53-yard field goals, which both Folk and Rohrwasser nailed.
Overall it was the most entertaining practice of the summer but another example of the defense controlling the action.
Here are some other observations from the Patriots 14th practice of camp.
*Before the scrimmage there was some one-on-one work involving the offensive and defensive lines as well as receivers and defensive backs. Three sets of drills took place at once with pass rush/pass proctection, tight end and running back/safeties, linebackers and wide receivers/corners going at it. Stephon Gilmore and Edelman matched up on one rep and Gilmore got the better of things. He undercut a corner route and dropped what looked to be a sure pick. Jason McCourty controlled Sanu with some physical work on another rep while J.C. Jackson's aggressiveness drew a flag from the onlooking official.
*Xavier Williams and Justin Herron took laps during the linemen work, likely for jumping offside.
*Offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels and outside linebackers coach Steve Belichick wore headsets and relayed the calls in for their respective units.
*Nick Thurman is a first-year defensive lineman out of Houston who spent time on the Patriots practice squad last season. He's been showing up pretty regularly in some of the drills, and he caught my eye with one quick pass rush during the individual work. Thurman seems to be a player looking to earn more opportunities and with the depth up front defensively a bit of a question mark perhaps Thurman can find a way to stick around.
*Stidham, White, the McCourtys and Jake Burt were among those who spoke to the media via video conference after practice.