Today, I had an opportunity to attend the 18th training-camp practice on the fields behind the stadium. This was the last on-field practice prior to the exhibition game on Thursday night. Tomorrow, there will be a walk-through.
First player on the field and the last off it was Matt Gutierrez. Second player to arrive was Matt Cassel, which was a clear indication that the focus was on the backup quarterbacks.
Since it is extremely unlikely that Kevin O'Connell gets the ax this early in his career, it obviously has come down to Cassel or Gutierrez. I would forecast that at least the first one or two games will focus on the backup quarterbacks—I don't foresee Brady playing in the first game, and possibly not until the last few games of preseason.
Most of the practice focused on running through most of the plays that are to be run for Thursday night: some situational football, goal-line situations, special teams, and kick-return coverages.
For the most part, Belichick was hands off, leaving the bulk of the work to McDaniels, Capers, and Johnson, who were calling on different packages. I saw it as a very good sign that as far as I could tell. The players were sharp, on their toes, hit the field when their package was called, and knew their exact positions.
The only exception was Shawn Crable (well, he is a rookie), who lined up incorrectly in a sub package on a goal-line situation, then tried to move to align correctly. In a game he would probably have been penalized for an illegal shift. He got barked at by Capers, whom I really like—he really fits in because of his attention to detail.
This sharpness is a signature of a well-prepared Belichick team, and is a great indication that this team is mentally sharp and motivated.
Some individual observations that stand out: Jordan was involved in several Faulk-like plays as a receiver. Chad Jackson seems to be working consistently out of the slot.
Regarding the tight-end situation, David Thomas appeared to be okay. He seemed to hit his cuts pretty well and ran sharply. It was fairly obvious, from the many reps he was doing, and the number of plays he was in, that the Patriots are confident that Thomas has recovered from his foot injury.
I really do think that they are just going to run with a two-tight-end set (Thomas and Watson) and a deep RB corps. The only question to be settled is: Who will do the lead blocking now that we don't have Kyle Brady. I am interested in seeing what works out.
One player that really stood out was Matthew Slater. He was all over the field, doing reps for the O, the D, special teams, and kick returns. Rather than switch from a white to a blue jersey, they simply gave him a yellow jersey to don or remove according to the situation.
This is a kid to watch out for. He has really good hands and lightning speed. At the end of practice, he was performing a difficult drill, where he had a ball in one hand and had to field a return with the other hand. Then he had to toss the one ball up while catching a return, and then catch the other ball with the other hand.
He did this several times without dropping any balls. I truly think he will have an immediate impact.
The one thing that has me really excited is the defense. Someone or something has given this defense a new personality. There is an electric atmosphere, a cocky confidence. They were doing drills by themselves on the other field earlier, and they seemed to be frisky and competitive, and although this practice was light contact only, they were taking things seriously.
I also saw some tantalizing glimpses of what Capers might unveil in the upcoming season. In some of the situational plays, the OLBs and DBs were on the line of scrimmage quite often, with some dropping back, some creeping forward, faking drop backs, or rushing.
There is a new degree of complexity to the sub packages. Overall, it is very exciting and something to look forward to. I guarantee that a lot of teams will be surprised by this new defense. There is a lot of speed, youth, and energy, and this seems to have charged up the old vets, such as Bruschi and Vrabel (activated from PUP today).