I attended the 23rd training camp practice today (next to the last one). The intensity had noticeably picked up, and one example of this was the beautiful flying catch TE Dave Thomas made in a 11-on-11 situation.
The team was going through some of the plays for Tampa, which should be an interesting game to watch because of the fundamental difference in their offense (an offshoot of the west coast offense) as well as the extreme humidity and heat.
In some of the plays I noticed that not in one instance was there a three wideout, which confirmed my initial suspicion that the Patriots have undergone a fundamental shift in their offense philosophy. Look for them to mix it up a little more out of the slot as well as use more moving screens/running plays.
One thing I noticed was the increased emphasis on running backs being hybrid receivers/backs, particularly with Evans.
Practice proceeded to become more intense with 11 on 11 scenarios, in what I like to call the 95% intensity drills where you go all out, including contact, but just fall short of full contact that potentially causes injury. This is where the gap between Brady and Cassell/Gutz just becomes so apparent, it just makes one cringes to think about what happens if Brady gets injured.
Brady just has that composure and 100% confidence to throw in a mass or tight coverage and hit the man without getting intercepted. This happened a few times with some of the DB's lunging for the ball and just barely missing and banging their helmets in frustration.
This is a talent, and is what separates the elite quarterbacks from the rest: their ability to just evade interception and just get the ball to somehow end up at the intended target, however the circumstances or means to get it there. You could see Cassel hesitate ever so slightly, and in the NFL that gets you eaten for breakfast.
Kevin O'Connell showed some promise, however—exhibiting poise and good field vision. Watch for him to become the No. 2 backup.
After the woeful performance of the special teams in the last preseason game, it was not surprising to see Belichick hovering over the team while they ran through their drills, check downs, and plays.
Look for Slater to be the primary kick-returner. We will see plenty of him in the upcoming game. Wheatley has solidified himself as the No. 3 CB out of the rotation, expect to see him in plenty of sub packages. Also, Ellis seems to be healthy enough to start in rotation.
The end of the practice was the most interesting: when the team started running no-huddle two minute drills, working off several scenarios...what may be best called "war-gaming" where you have a fixed field position and a limited amount of time to get down field.
First to start was Brady, leading his squad down field as signals were thrown from the "sidelines" (real-game simulation). This was a clear indication that, as I predicted, the Patriots are not going to use the mic on defense because of their elaborate packages that would have required helmet juggling.
Belichick did a good job of adding to the confusion by blowing the whistle, running in and setting up a fourth and inches scenario which the offense converted easily, then with 17 seconds on the clock there was a series of advances, timeout, spikes, and two incurred defense false starts to get to first and goal with two seconds left where Brady and Moss connected (you knew it was coming!).
Cassel took over for the second series but got nowhere with three incompletes and ended up with a fourth and eight with three seconds left, leaving Gostowski to settle matters.
I expect CJ Jones to be cut soon. I think Cassel and Chad Jackson are really on the line here.. It may end up that Gutz gets cut, but nevertheless Cassel is not showing poise
One thing I noticed was that in all the hoopla regarding the five running backs, BenJarvis Green-Ellis has by and large been flying under the radar. I observed this kid in a third and two, third and long, and third and eight. This kid not only has blazing speed, but seems to have an instinct for where the hole is going to emerge. He converted on all three.
Not one DB got their hand on this kid before he ate up a good chunk of real estate beyond the line of scrimmage. I really do hope the Patriots do not cut him or place him on waivers.