What We Learned from New England Patriots Training Camp, 8/7

Erik Frenz@ErikFrenzSenior Writer IAugust 8, 2012

FOXBORO, MA - AUGUST 9:   Bill Belichick, coach of the New England Patriots, reacts to an official's call during a game against the Orleans Saints in the first half at Gillette Stadium on August 9, 2012 in Foxboro, Massachusetts. (Photo by Jim Rogash/Getty Images)
Jim Rogash/Getty Images

In preparation for Thursday's preseason game, the New England Patriots and New Orleans Saints held joint practices for the second time in the past three years. 

"We got a lot of good, new looks," said Patriots head coach Bill Belichick. "We need them, we'll learn from them, and it will make us a better football team, so it was a good day here." 

From that vantage point, it was a good day, but other than that, it was not a good day for the Patriots. Let's take a look at some observations from today's practice.

Offensive Line Continues to Struggle Amid Shuffle

So we learned this a while ago, but we have been continually reminded of it at just about every practice thus far.

And those reminders rang loud and clear on Tuesday, with the Patriots lining up against a new opponent for the first time in camp.

In both one-on-ones and team drills, the Patriots offensive line struggled with the likes of Will Smith, Brodrick Bunkley and Sedrick Ellis. The opponents may be new, but the struggles for the interior offensive linemen are nothing new.

Patriots Defense Lines Up Against Another Elite Offense

Last week, Patriots safety Patrick Chung touched on the benefits of practicing against one of the top quarterbacks in the NFL.

"Going against [Tom Brady] is definitely going to make you better, hands down," Chung said.

This time, the Patriots faced the record-setting Saints offense. This time, it was Patriots head coach Bill Belichick laying on the heavy praise.

"What New Orleans did last year—and they have 10 or 11 of those players back—setting NFL records in passing yardage, Drew [Brees] in completion percentage and all that," Belichick said." Top-scoring offense in the league, moving the ball. It's a big challenge playing against that group. And they're different. They do different things than what we do. And they're very good at it. It's good at our defense to see the best and compete against the best."

The Patriots defense struggled against the record-holding quarterback. Brees went 15-for-21 in 11-on-11 work (by my unofficial count) and threw one interception. Big plays were given up by cornerbacks Will Allen, Kyle Arrington, Patrick Chung, Devin McCourty and others.

One player making some plays was cornerback Sterling Moore. He has shown solid ball skills in the past and had a nice pass break-up against Saints receiver Joseph Morgan, but the receiver made an excellent play on the ball as he fell to the turf, catching the pass on his back for the touchdown. It was a great play with a bad break for the cornerback.

Struggling against Tom Brady and Drew Brees is one thing, but these problems continued into the regular season over the past two years. At some point, the Patriots defense has to be able to put the brakes on New England's opponents.

A Mixed Bag for Tom Brady

One look at Tom Brady's body language was all you needed to know how he felt about his day. His shoulders sank. His head hung. His helmet dangled at his side.

Brady was not satisfied.

We've come to expect perfection from Brady, and so has Brady. We got close to perfection in the first hour or more of practice. In the first session, pitting defensive backs against receivers and tight ends one-on-one, Brady went 13-for-15.

It was downhill from there. He went 7-for-16 passing with an interception in team drills. He overthrew and underthrew his receivers, had passes sail and sink and just generally struggled. He was intercepted by linebacker Curtis Lofton in seven-on-sevens and by Malcolm Jenkins in 11-on-11s.

Some of those struggles were results of an offensive line that had a hard time stopping pressure from getting in Brady's face, but there were a handful of passes that were just remarkably off their targets. 

Mixing It Up Outside The Numbers 

The Patriots have their lethal trio of Aaron Hernandez, Rob Gronkowski and Wes Welker to do damage over the middle of the field, and while each of the three can give the offense something on the outside, the Patriots have notably lacked an "X" receiver for years.

It was no surprise to see them stockpile outside receivers this offseason, adding Brandon Lloyd, Jabar Gaffney and Donte' Stallworth to the roster, but the Patriots rotated different players in and out on the outside.

This serves as just another reminder that the Patriots aren't ever going to simply line up and go; they will do whatever they can to keep opposing defenses on their heels, to keep them guessing and to try to create mismatches all over the field, not just outside the numbers or between them.

The question is whether those players can win one-on-one matchups and get past defenses in the deep half. We didn't see much of that today, except on a couple of catches from Aaron Hernandez and Julian Edelman, but we've seen flashes of it throughout camp, with Lloyd making more than his share of pretty catches.

Rookie Mistakes for Dont'a Hightower

It's been nothing but rave reviews for rookie linebacker Dont'a Hightower since he showed up at Patriots training camp. He has lined up as a starter, and he has looked like a starter.

It's almost made you forget he's a rookie. But as such, he's susceptible to mistakes.

As Field Yates of ESPN Boston notes, Hightower has looked good rerouting receivers, but he looked a little out of his element today.

It's understandable, with his going against one of the best tight ends in the league, but boy, did Jimmy Graham make Hightower look sluggish, twice blowing past the rookie linebacker.

Hightower is still expected to have a big impact in his rookie year, but don't be stunned if he struggles from time to time. Just as any rookie would.

Erik Frenz is the AFC East lead blogger for Bleacher Report. Be sure to follow Erik on Twitter and "like" the AFC East blog on Facebook to keep up with all the updates. Unless specified otherwise, all quotes obtained first-hand.


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