Three days after a close game against the New Orleans Saints, the Patriots were back at training camp on Sunday with a walkthrough in the morning and a practice in full pads in the afternoon.
Sunday afternoon’s practice marked one of the last practice sessions that will be open to the public at Gillette Stadium. The Patriots will head to Atlanta Monday evening in preparation for their second preseason game against the Falcons.
A few key observations from the weekend practice session; injuries continue to chip away at both offense and defense, the guard position personnel group changing and Derrick Burgess returns as Ron Brace makes training camp debut.
The Injury Report
The story that overshadowed to what was assumed to be a Brady finger injury, was the abrupt placement of veteran wide receiver Torry Holt on the season-ending injured reserve list. Holt is reported to have a knee injury and will be going in for surgery later on this week. This has re-opened the doors for local undrafted rookie wide receiver Buddy Farnham, who was released earlier last week.
As the afternoon session went on, three other players were also attended to be team medics and trainers: outside linebacker Tully Banta-Cain, linebacker Thomas Williams and wide receiver Darnell Jenkins. Banta-Cain and Williams appear to have suffered ankle-related injuries. Jenkins looked to have hurt his right leg.
Final reports on the three players and the status of their injuries have yet to be announced.
As mentioned, Brady’s suggested finger injury, was a focus during the morning walkthrough as the quarterback had his right and middle fingers taped together. However, when the afternoon practice came around, tape was nowhere to be found on Brady and he continued to throw accurately and comfortably throughout practice.
When Bill Belichick was asked about Brady’s taped fingers prior to the afternoon session, expressed, with a smile, his concern with the “injury”.
“I don't think it's life-threatening, no.”
Brady was reported to have accidentally hit his fingers against a Saints player’s helmet during the game on Thursday.
Updates for the Offensive Line
After the showing that the back up offensive lineman had during the Patriots preseason game, it’s difficult to imagine that the Patriots would be willing to consider the contract that Logan Mankins and his agent Frank Bauer are demanding.
Mankins’ agent Bauer discussed the status of negotiations with the team in The Boston Globe.
“For this young man to work like he has and play for the club for five years, and be promised he’d be taken care of, and to throw the offer they did across the table? It was never, ever a five-year deal,” Bauer said. “They wanted six years, they wanted seven. They have to do what they have to do, and we’ll do what we have to do.”
More likely than not, the Patriots will have to embrace the new found offerings of linemen Dan Connolly, Eric Ghiaciuc and Ryan Wendell. All three lineman saw playing time during the first preseason game this past Thursday and have been receiving the majority of the reps at camp.
First impression of the group from the Saints game is a positive one. The first team offensive line was effective in moving the ball. Brady was well protected in the pocket while the blocking for the running game allowed for both the Benjarvus Green-Ellis and Laurence Maroney to score rushing touchdowns. It was the Patriots’ second-string offensive line that has some struggles. Ted Larson, a free agent acquired from Jacksonville on 2005, had two blown blocks, leading to negative plays against the Saints.
Despite their struggles, the offensive line showed some cohesion among the first string. Unfortunately, their backups still have a long way to go.
Burgess Reinstated and Brace-ing for Impact
Defensive end and key pass rusher Derrick Burgess has returned from his potential retirement and has been reinstated to the Patriots active roster. Burgess’ contemplation of retirement on the eve of training camp had raised concerns about the depth of the Patriots’ defensive front.
As Burgess confessed on Friday, his absence from camp was due to a personal issue that he needed to address. Burgess’ return came at a time when the Patriots defense was hit with another injury, this time it was defensive lineman Ty Warren who is suffering from a hip injury.
Amidst the two week absence from camp, Bill Belichick still spoke volumes of what Burgess will bring to the team.
“I think he has a good understanding of his opponents, pass-rush technique and how to defeat blockers and how to specifically defeat individual blockers based on their strengths and weaknesses and how he matches up against them.”
Sunday’s practice also was the first day for defensive lineman Ron Brace to return in full pads. The 2009 second round pick from Boston College has been listed on the non-football injury list. Brace did not workout with the first team on Sunday but was able to get some reps in the secondary unit. Needless to say, Brace was excited to be back on the field.
“Just happy to be out trying to catch up to these guys and working to get ready for Atlanta. I’ve been working really hard in my playbook but everybody’s in that rhythm and now I have to try to get back in that rhythm.”
Brace struggled to produce in his rookie year as he was listed as inactive seven times and only recorded nine total tackles for the 2009-2010 season.
Kisha’s Key Point: Special Teams Needs Work
The special teams squad made some highlights during the Saints preseason game on Thursday. Julian Edelman and Devin McCourty both had impressive kickoff and punt returns to set up the Patriots offense to two scoring drives. This was of course, the top special teams unit. As with the offensive line, the back-ups had noticeable struggles.
Early in the third quarter, Stephen Gostkowski’s kickoff was returned for a 97 yard touchdown by Saints returner Larry Beavers. Special teams coach Scott O’Brien was obviously frustrated, and had every reason to be. O’Brien specifically mentioned during a press conference at camp that the aspect of their special teams game that needed the most improvement was the kick return coverage. The scoring return by the Saints only highlighted this concern.
Sunday’s practice had an emphasis on kick returns and coverage. Gostkowski was accurate in his kicks, placing several balls deep into the end zone. So far, both Gostkowski and punter Zoltan Mesko have been solid in their performances in the kicking game. These two are the least of the team’s concerns.
O’Brien vocalized specific positioning for receivers and corners who were responsible for providing necessary blocks. Missed assignments paved the way for the successful Saints return and O’Brien was set on not ever letting it happen again. Such a high focus on that aspect of the game gives more reasoning as to why the Patriots have picked up players such as Devin McCourty and Kyle Arrington in recent years.
After a few drills in practice, all players from receivers to tight ends were working on 1-on-1 blocking drills. Apparently sloppy technique in coverage allowed the Saints to get to the endzone .
Special teams performances determine, not only where the offense will start their drive, but can give momentum to one team for the rest of the game. If the Patriots kick return coverage does not improve then opposing returners could have little trouble making returns of 30+ yards or more. New England finished 25th in the league last season allowing opponents an average return of 24.4 yards per kickoff. A stat like that in 2010 could derail hopes of another playoff run for last year’s division champions.
Kisha Tapangan is a contributing writer for PatriotsInsider.com She also maintains her personal blog Necessary Roughness and can be found on Twitter @KishaT. Be sure to check in all camp long for regular updates by Kisha from Foxboro