The New Orleans Saints made their debut early Tuesday morning on practice fields behind Gillette Stadium as they readied for their first of three joint practices with the New England Patriots. A record 16,455 fans attended Tuesday’s sessions, including one famous face, singer Jon Bon Jovi.
Key observations from day 11 include: Patriots and Saints work together, Marquis Murrell’s injury, tight ends’ new roles in Patriots offense and Spikes tries a different position.
Patriots and Saints Working Together
Having a team like the New Orleans Saints to run 11-on-11 drills with just two days before a preseason game could be exactly what the Patriots need to start the 2010 season off on the right foot.
What do players look forward to the most in joint practices? Hitting people other than your teammates. Rookie Rob Gronkowski explained,
“It was fun getting out here hitting a new opponent. We've been going against the same guys every day on our own team, so it was fun going out there and going against a great team and a great opponent,” Gonkowski said.
Saints wide receiver Lance Moore couldn’t agree more, “We've been kind of beating each other up the last 10 or so days and just to get out here with some different guys.”
Both teams ran drills on separate fields to get tuned up before they faced off. After warm-ups the teams got together and ran team drills both on offense and defense.
Some things worth noting about the Saints is their strength in the running game. Saints’ running backs led the way with several bursts through the Patriots defensive line. It was a scene eerily reminiscent of last year’s playoff loss to the Ravens, when Ray Rice ran roughshod through the New England defense.
New Orleans Saints running back Pierre Thomas runs past New England Patriots' Brandon Meriweather (31) during a joint football practice in Foxborough, Mass. Tuesday, Aug. 10, 2010. (AP Photo/Winslow Townson)
Former Patriots David Thomas, Randall Gay and Heath Evans all had productive practices today in the fields they used to call home. All three earned their Super Bowl ring in New Orleans when the Saints defeated longtime Patriots rival, the Indianapolis Colts.
Tight end David Thomas spoke of the similarities between his former and current coach Sean Payton.
“[They're] very similar. They both expect a lot out of their players,” Thomas stated.”They expect you to work hard and do your job well. They have high expectations for everyone, so it has been a lot of fun playing for both of them. They are both very good coaches.”
The Saints and Patriots have a final practice joint practice on Wednesday, August 11th from 9:00 AM - 11:00 AM.
Singer Jon Bon Jovi was at Patriots camp today to take in the sights of both teams facing off. Bon Jovi has been a regular at Patriots camp in years past. Both head coaches are fans, with Belichick befriending Bon Jovi during the coaches time in New York. Payton reportedly accepted his job as Saints head coach while attending a Bon Jovi concert.
Singer Jon Bon Jovi, right, shares a laugh with New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick, left, and New Orleans Saints head coach Sean Payton during a joint football practice in Foxborough, Mass. Tuesday, Aug. 10, 2010. (AP Photo/Winslow Townson)
Marques Murrell Carted Off the Field
Patriots Insider was the first to report from Tuesday afternoon’s training session that prospective outside linebacker Marquis Murrell was carted off the field at the conclusion of practice.
The former New York Jet, who has played defensive end and as a crucial part of the special teams, was having a noticeably productive practice session while taking reps as a starting outside linebacker. Murrell had lined up several times in practice with last season’s top Patriots pass rusher Tully Banta-Cain.
The state of Murrell’s injury is unclear at the moment, but depending on its severity, could have a significant impact on the team’s already dwindling supply of healthy outside linebackers.
Jermaine Cunningham, Rob Ninkovich, Pierre Woods and veteran Tully Banta-Cain have all been getting reps as outside linebackers. It is likely though, that Cunningham will be used as a defensive end.
If this is a serious injury for Murrell, the signing of other available OLB for the Patriots could go from minor talks to a serious consideration.
Patriots Tie Tight Ends into Offense
Bill Belichick explained during a conversation with Saints’ head coach Sean Payton and NFL Network’s Mike Mayock that the Patriots have made the conscious effort of improving the team’s tight end position. Belichick elaborated on the role of the revamped tight end group of Alge Crumpler, Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski.
“..Those guys have been working hard,” said the Patriots head coach. “I think that they’ll give us a little more production on the tight end than we’ve had in the last couple of years..”
Crumpler, Hernandez and Gronkowski are the primary focus of the tight end group with Rob Meyers and Carson Butler adding depth. Work inside the Red Zone highlighted their practice.
Hernandez had a few ups and downs Tuesday. At one point he had to run a lap for missing a blocking assignment. Blocking has been Hernandez’s weakness and several of them have been the cause of unsuccessful running plays. On a more positive note, the rookie has been a favored target for both Tom Brady and Brian Hoyer during passing drills. Hernandez’s speed easily gives the tight end separation from even some the quickest defensive backs.
Contrary to Hernandez, Gronkowski has excelled in his blocking, but has lagged in the ability to catch tough passes or run quick routes. Gronkowski’s blocks have given Kevin Faulk and Laurence Maroney plenty of space – something which has been lacking from the tights ends previously.
Relying on the old adage that Rookies stick together, Gronkowski discussed his relationship with fellow rookie tight end Aaron Hernandez. “It's great to have another rookie tight end in there, too,” Gronkowski said. “He knows a lot about the offense. We are always just trying to help each other out and learn a lot.”
Spikes Tries the Outside
Training camp is the perfect time for coaches to try players out at different positions. As reported last week, Julian Edelman – a quarterback turned receiver -- worked out with the running back group. Tuesday it was rookie Brandon Spikes’ turn, moving from inside to plaing more outside in the linebacker group.
Typically, Spikes has been lining up as the inside linebacker with fellow rookie Jermaine Cunningham playing the outside. Having Spikes become familiar with the outside linebacker position is evidence that the Patriots are aware of growing void in the defense, and wish to improve Spikes’ versatility.
Spikes’ proved he could rush the passer at Florida. He recorded 14 deflected passes, intercepted six others and scored four defensive touchdowns. Spikes would be a possible option if choices are limited for outside linebackers.
Kisha’s Key Point: The Defense’s Missing Edge
On the Patriots training camp roster, there is only one player listed as a defensive end; rookie Jermaine Cunningham. Drafted out of Florida, Cunningham made his mark in college as one half of one of the most successful pass rushing duo in the SEC. Cunningham and his former teammate Carlos Dunlap (now part of the Cincinnati Bengals) finished their final season with 19.5 quarterback sacks each.
Is Cunningham the answer to the Patriots’ defensive end needs? Maybe, but he still has a lot to learn.
One player the team hoped would help pressure the quarterback -- Ron Brace -- remains on the non-football related injured list. If Brace is unable to contribute, other possibilities include rookies Brandon Deaderick and Kade Weston. Both seventh round picks have shown glimpses of their potential, but remain raw.
Without last year’s end Derrick Burgess to bolster the unit, the Patriots are looking at another season without a serious pass-rush threat opposite Tully Banta-Cain. The way it looks now, New England’s defense could be in for a long and trying season.