New England Patriots 2010 Training Camp: Notes from Joint Practices
Driving up to Gillette Stadium was almost surreal. I'd only seen it on TV; the stadium was much bigger than I imagined it.
But the real trip was seeing all the big-name players in the flesh—Tom Brady, Randy Moss, Wes Welker, Bill Belichick, and all the names I've written a hundred times or more in my articles.
Watching the Patriots practice with the Saints was a real treat, too.
The two teams shared a total of three joint practices on Tuesday, August 10 and Wednesday, August 11. I was able to attend two of them and got to see how my favorite team matches up against the Super Bowl champions.
Here are some of my observations from the two sessions, the 21st and 22nd of New England's practices.
1. New Orleans Abused New England's Pass Blockers
It seemed like New England couldn't stop New Orleans' defenders from beating them on the rush.
In Tuesday afternoon's practice, Will Smith reached Tom Brady for a strip sack. Granted, he rushed against Aaron Hernandez, but this was far from the only instance of Brady being flushed from the pocket or simply being crowded by New Orleans' defenders.
The Patriots need to step up in pass blocking, or it could be a long season for New England's offense.
2. Tom Brady's New Toys
Tom Brady is recognized league-wide for his ability to spread the ball around to his receivers but hasn't done that much lately with Wes Welker and Randy Moss on the field.
Many of the most memorable plays came from Brandon Tate and Julian Edelman. Both had great touchdown grabs over the course of the two practices I attended, leaping and keeping both feet in bounds. Brady even found Tate on a deep ball where Tate was wide open and made the touchdown grab.
Brady looked to Aaron Hernandez frequently and found him on patterns of all kinds—short, deep, middle, and a lot were for first downs, big gains, or even touchdowns. Near the beginning of the Tuesday afternoon practice, Brady jogged up to Hernandez and the two joined in a fist bump, after which Brady gave Hernandez a pat on the back.
This is in stark contrast to last week, where many said that Brady was barking at Hernandez and sitting him down on the sideline for a talk. The two appear to be building rapport at a rapid pace.
Of course, the group wasn't without its flaws. Tate made a nice catch for a first down during two-minute drills, but a coach barked at him to "get out of bounds" to stop the clock.
3. Wes Welker Looks As Good As Ever
When the wheels got moving on the Patriots' passing attack, Wes Welker really looked as healthy as ever. He was getting open with ease. He was even making tough catches just like the younger guys were, leaping and keeping both feet in bounds for a touchdown grab in the corner that had everyone oohing and cheering.
It appeared he was the same first-down machine as before, reeling in a couple on third down off Tom Brady on separate occasions. He even raked in a few touchdown grabs, both up the middle and in the corner of the end zone.
Welker's performance is an intriguing topic to follow over the course of the season, but the signs all look positive from this angle.
4. Rookies Subbing for Injured Veterans
Gary Guyton and Leigh Bodden were both on the sideline in sweats and shorts. It's tough to tell when either will be back, but seeing them out there is about as much as we can ask for at this point.
In their stead, two rookies took the starts with the first-team defense: Brandon Spikes and Devin McCourty.
McCourty got beat a few times but played admirable man coverage on Marques Colston. He's making plays out there, and despite being a rookie corner starting on the left side, he looks comfortable.
Spikes looked good in spots, playing solidly as an anchor in the Patriots' run defense. He was pulled aside after practice by Belichick, and the two were seen talking for a good amount of time. Belichick clearly has a vested interest in the development of Spikes.
5. Great Competitive Fire
Practicing against the defending Super Bowl champions seemed to really light a spark under the Patriots and get them to play with more attitude.
There was some chippy behavior from members of both teams, but I recall an instance where Edelman made a good catch-and-run for a first down and was brought down hard by the Saints' defensive back, whose number I couldn't see. The Saints DB swung on Edelman, but Edelman got right back in his face and didn't back down.
During punt return drills on Wednesday, the Patriots' vice guys would bring down the Saints' gunners near the Patriots sideline, knocking them out of bounds to a whooping and hollering verbal beatdown from the other players. There was a lot of pushing, shoving, and swinging by members of each team.
6. Exotic Formations
Bill Belichick likes to use a lot of different formations to give opposing offenses different looks in an effort to confuse them. He did a lot of switching back and forth between 3-4 and 4-3 base alignments, but also threw in some nickel and dime packages and a very interesting formation with Myron Pryor and Vince Wilfork as the down linemen and three or four linebackers.
Belichick could just be trying to figure out what everyone is good at and ways to maximize certain players' skill sets. Something tells me the Patriots could just be looking for some different defensive schemes to get after the quarterback.
7. Brady's Leadership on Display
I have talked before about Tom Brady taking on more of a leadership role. He has said in past interviews that he "sucked" at being a leader last year.
Brady is taking it upon himself to get better, though. He got at least a little face time with all of his receivers and chatting with Moss on a few occasions after drives to discuss what happened. He got some time in with his young receivers as well, stopping to chat with Tate after a few passes in his direction.
It wasn't all smiles, though.
At one point, Brady barked at Wes Welker on a dropped pass, and later he yelled at his teammates to "get in the f***ing huddle, let's go!"
It's nice to see Brady holding guys accountable to the same standard of excellence he holds himself to.
8. Who Will Start at Running Back?
The Patriots have been notorious for their running back by committee over the past few years, featuring Kevin Faulk, Sammy Morris, Laurence Maroney, and recently adding Fred Taylor and BenJarvus Green-Ellis to the long list of competent backs in New England's backfield.
Taylor started with the first-team offense on Tuesday, and Morris started on Wednesday. Faulk was in for passing situations, while Maroney got some licks in with the first-team offense but also with the second-team offense.
The reps were pretty evenly split out, which is nothing new for New England fans. Still, it will be interesting to see who gets the starts because that player could be responsible for setting the tone for the running game for the rest of the game.
QB: Tom Brady
HB: Sammy Morris
WR1: Randy Moss
WR2: Brandon Tate
WR3: Wes Welker
TE: Aaron Hernandez
O-line: Matt Light, Dan Connolly, Dan Koppen, Stephen Neal, Sebastian Vollmer
D-line: Mike Wright, Vince Wilfork, Gerard Warren
OLB: Jermaine Cunningham, Tully Banta-Cain
ILB: Jerod Mayo, Brandon Spikes
CB: Devin McCourty, Darius Butler
FS: Brandon Meriweather
SS: Patrick Chung
More from Camp
Attending camp was an experience I won't soon forget, but living over two-and-a-half hours away, it may also be an experience I won't soon relive.
The Patriots have their first preseason game of the year tonight, so they may not have more practices until next week. Check back for a camp update after the Patriots have held a few more sessions.
Thanks for reading!
(Erik Frenz is exclusively covering the New England Patriots training camp for Bleacher Report.)